It’s the rare politician with such a legacy to be recognized by first name only. And for Georgians, no one’s career or personality can be summed up so well in four letters: Z-E-L-L.
If we attached a definition to that name, it would mean, all at once: Feisty, homespun, genuine, honest, unpretentious and stubborn. All of those qualities described Zell Miller, who died Friday at age 86.
The native of the Towns County mountains rose from U.S. Marine to college professor, state legislator, lieutenant governor, governor and U.S. senator. He was a pragmatic reformer and counsel to presidents. He fought battles big and small, not always with the gloves on, and he never backed down from a scrap.
He did it all while never losing the Appalachian twang in his voice, the mischievous twinkle in his eye or the steely determination in his jaw.
Ultimately, we can say this of Zell Miller: He never stopped being who he was. From start to finish, he was the real McCoy, as pure Georgia as the red clay of his hometown hills.
His career spanned the 1960s South to Washington, D.C., of the early 21st century. At each step along the way, he took on different jobs, foes and issues but he never strayed from his Young Harris roots.
He began his political career in the ’60s as a state senator, then served as chief of staff for Gov. Lester Maddox, an unrepentant segregationist elected when racial turmoil was at its peak. Many credit Miller for helping to moderate Maddox’s extremist views, resulting in the appointment of many African-Americans to state office.
Yet in a 1964 run for Congress against Rep. Phil Landrum, Miller himself took a low road he later regretted, denouncing President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights record. But like others of his era, including Jimmy Carter, he left that unholy path and soon learned the state’s racial diversity was a strength to be celebrated, not feared.
He later wrote, “I only hope that the totality of my 40-year record since then is proof that they were the words of someone who at that time was a political weakling, but not a racist.”
He lived up to that with his actions in office, becoming the first governor to openly recommend removing the state flag’s Confederate emblem that he said represented “the dark side of the Confederacy — the desire to deprive some Americans of the equal rights that are the birthright of all.” He also is lauded for appointing a record number of blacks and women to the state’s judiciary as governor.
Miller was elected lieutenant governor in 1974 and served a record four terms in that post, guiding the Senate with an iron hand and frequently clashing with his House counterpart, Speaker Tom Murphy. He became known as a strong-willed deal-maker and ally for Govs. George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris.
In 1980, he launched a bitter, divisive primary challenge to incumbent U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge, who dubbed Miller “Zig-Zag Zell.” Talmadge handily won a runoff for the nomination, only to suffer an upset loss in the fall to upstart Mack Mattingly in a nationwide GOP landslide.
After two more terms as lieutenant governor, Miller ascended to the governor’s office in 1990 by defeating current U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. He served as both a fiscal, law-and-order conservative and a progressive reformer who helped bring Georgia into the modern global era.
His signature achievement was creation of the Georgia Lottery to fund both the HOPE Scholarship, to help qualified students afford college tuition, and statewide pre-kindergarten. Over a quarter century, the lottery has provided $10 billion in HOPE funds for 1.8 million college students and 1.6 million pre-K children, while never costing taxpayers an extra dime.
After two terms as governor, Miller retired to his beloved mountains, but not for long. The death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell on primary day in 2000 opened the seat, and Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Miller to finish the term.
As a Democrat filling a GOP seat, Miller went to Washington determined to represent his state, not the party. He soon found Democrats in D.C. to be far removed from his own views, and he frequently caucused and voted with Senate Republicans while decrying the influence of money, partisanship and corruption in the nation’s capital.
His split with his party became so intense he gave a noteworthy speech at the Republican convention in 2004 endorsing President George W. Bush, 12 years after delivering the keynote speech for Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention.
Democrats were aghast at such betrayal but Miller was unapologetic, rephrasing Reagan’s old claim that “I didn’t leave my party, my party left me,” and he wrote a book to that effect, “A National Party No More.”
Though many Southern Blue Dog Democrats of the time switched to the Republican side, Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue among them, Miller didn’t budge and finished his career as it started, with a “D” next to his name.
“I was born a Democrat. It’s not simply a party affiliation; it’s more like a birthmark for me and many of my fellow mountaineers,” he said. “I would no more think of changing parties than I would think of changing my name.”
That was Miller’s signature, one of a man who would change jobs but not parties, and change views but never his principles, who he was or from whence he came. He always spoke his mind freely without wetting a finger to the wind or consulting focus groups or polls to parse his statements or select the right color of tie.
For 40 years, spanning the days of “White Only” bathrooms to the Atlanta Olympics, Miller held nearly every political job listed on a ballot, leading with both his heart and his head, and never once touched by personal scandal or ethical breaches. He changed the way Georgians get an education, from pre-K to college, and if that were his only achievement, it would stand alone as a major success.
The hardscrabble hills from which he emerged will now accept him home for all eternity. “Give ’Em Hell Zell” gave ’em hell all right, and our state is richer, smarter and better for it.
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