Zell Miller always struck me as a man trapped in an era not his own, and his efforts both personally and politically to reconcile the tug of the past with his profound hope for the future accounted for much that made him fascinating to Georgians and to those of us who were lucky enough to cover him.
That conflict was all the more poignant and symbolic because as Miller rose to statewide and then national prominence, his beloved Georgia was itself being torn between its past and its future, between its fears and hopes. Millions of Georgians recognized themselves and each other in “Zig Zag Zell,” which is what gave his career such iconic resonance.
As every remembrance of Zell will tell you, he had a prickly, 19th century sense of slighted personal honor much like that of Andrew Jackson, who had fought several duels and killed a man in one. And while Miller’s hard-scrabble, Depression-era upbringing gave him an appreciation of Rooseveltian government as a legitimate tool for improving the lives of its citizens. his mountaineer independence made him leery of anyone who would offer that helping hand, and even more suspicious of those who would take it.
Miller came up in a Democratic Party that was devoted to the preservation of white privilege and black suppression, and in time he helped to turn it — if only temporarily — into a coalition between the state’s white and black establishments. But as the two parties nationalized themselves, shedding the regional variations that had made Southern white Democrats viable, Miller became a man without a political home.
Zell’s brightest moment in the national spotlight was, in my opinion, also his worst. I was on the floor of the 2004 GOP convention during Miller’s fiery keynote speech attacking the patriotism and courage of John Kerry, and the fuming and ranting from the podium more than met its match from the angry audience reaction. Many delegates were wearing small Band-Aids to mock Kerry’s Vietnam service, his three Purple Hearts and his Bronze Star. As someone brought up in a military family, I was shocked, but now see it as an early glimpse of the deep partisan divisions that are now so glaring.
Like our current occupant of the Oval Office, Miller would often operate out of blind instinct, lashing out at those who displeased him. At one point, when I had written something that angered him, Zell’s press secretary passed along a private message from the senator, telling me that Zell wanted to shoot me. I sent a message back, inquiring whether Zell planned to use the musket that he had trained with back in his days as a Marine. I hope he got a chuckle out of it, because both of us knew it wasn’t serious.
Unlike our current president, Miller also had a profoundly thoughtful side. He studied history and policy, and approached public service as a calling, not as a validation or celebration of self. If he came to regret an action taken in haste, honor required that he admit those regrets, as he later did about his GOP convention performance.
At one point late in his career, after Zell strongly condemned our state and national campaign-finance systems, I wrote a piece documenting how diligently and aggressively he had milked those systems for his own good, and accused him of hypocrisy. He sent back another note, this time candidly admitting that hypocrisy and his regrets, explaining that his hope had been that others might benefit from his mistakes.
With a lot of politicians, I might have dismissed that as false candor. With Zell Miller, I did not dare.