The Remarkable, Maddening Career of Zell Miller

Former governor and senator Zell Miller, famously attacking John Kerry at a GOP convention.

Most people who hear about the death of former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller will remember him, if at all, for his abrasive attacks on John Kerry — the presidential nominee of the party to which Miller had belonged for his entire, long life — at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Older readers may remember his keynote address at the 1992 Democratic Convention that nominated his close friend Bill Clinton.

People in his home state of Georgia are probably aware of additional aspects of Miller’s career, including his many years in elected office (he was lieutenant governor from 1975 until 1991, and governor from 1991 to 1999, before an appointed stint in the Senate from 2000 until 2005). They also know about his legacy initiative, the much-praised and imitated lottery-supported HOPE Scholarship program, which made college affordable for many hundreds of thousands of young Georgians while boosting academic standards at the state’s public colleges and universities by getting talented kids to stay in-state.

The length of Miller’s time in the public spotlight, and the wildly varying directions it took him, have often been encapsulated by the nickname he acquired from critics early on: “Zig-Zag Zell.” And the taunt goes back a lot further than his bookend Democratic and Republican convention addresses. Early on Miller ran twice for Congress in his native North Georgia mountains as an opponent of civil-rights legislation (a posture for which he later apologized), and then served as chief of staff for the state’s infamous segregationist governor Lester Maddox. But by 1974, Miller had managed to reframe himself as a relatively progressive Democrat in running for lieutenant governor, and by 1980 was most definitely the “liberal” candidate challenging the old reformed segregationist Herman Talmadge (losing in a Democratic runoff).

Elected governor in 1990 by running to the left of former ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and future governor Roy Barnes, Miller had a reasonably progressive record centered on HOPE and unprecedented appointments of women and minorities to executive and judicial offices. After his association with Clinton very nearly earned him defeat in 1994 (his Republican opponent ran hundreds of ads featuring Miller’s Democratic Convention speech, particularly the line, delivered in Zell’s mountain twang: “BILL CLINTON FEELS YORE PAIN”), he lost his zest for national Democratic politics. He was settling into multiple university teaching gigs and political retirement until he shocked most people he knew by accepting a Senate appointment when Paul Coverdell died in 2000.

No one was more shocked than I was, as his former (from 1992 through 1994) federal-state relations director, who had accompanied him to Washington often enough to understand his intense antipathy to the city and its culture. It surprised me less when he hated the Senate, and began lashing out at his Senate Democratic colleagues and the party to which he nominally owed allegiance. In 2003, he published a strange memoir (titled, for maximum book sales to conservatives, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat), which enveloped a proud account of his own progressive record in brief but quote-worthy attacks on Democrats. Soon afterwards, he completed his apostasy with his RNC speech embracing George W. Bush and savaging his former colleague John Kerry.

For a while there, Miller was like fellow arch-Appalachian Andrew Johnson reincarnated, turning on former friends and embracing former enemies with equal passion. It seemed there was no GOP candidate he wasn’t willing to support, the nadir probably being his establishment of a group called Democrats for Santorum, just as the right-wing senator was going down the tubes in the 2006 elections in Pennsylvania.

But in the last few years, as his health declined and he became more distant from politics, the fiery mountaineer seemed to mellow. He mended fences with old Democratic friends and advisers James Carville and Paul Begala (whom he first introduced to Bill Clinton). And in his last major political endorsement, in 2014, he supported Democrat Michelle Nunn’s Senate campaign.

You can think of that as a final “zig-zag,” or as a bit of a homecoming. I personally think it reflected a complicated and conflicted man who often regretted his own political impulses, and had more of a sense of humor about it all than most people realized.

I had some evidence for that suspicion. Back when it appeared, I wrote a review of A National Party No More that basically suggested Miller had lost his bearings after going to the Senate. The title was “Zell Bent.” A few months later a friend who had visited his Senate office brought me a handwritten note from my former boss (who was normally proper but not affectionate towards staff) that read: “Your review was fair and honest, and I remain your friend and admirer.” And he signed it “Zell Bent.”

He was one of a kind, and should be remembered for more than his zig-zags.

The Remarkable, Maddening Career of Zell Miller