That time when Hillary Clinton preserved a friendship for Zell Miller

From the balcony, former Gov. Zell Miller and his wife Shirley Miller are introduced during inauguration ceremonies on Monday. Curtis Compton,

From the balcony, former Gov. Zell Miller and his wife Shirley Miller are introduced during inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Nathan Deal in 2015. AJC file/ Curtis Compton

One more reason this presidential contest is unlike many of the past few decades: We haven’t heard from Zell Miller.

The 84-year-old former governor and U.S. senator has been laid up the summer up in Young Harris with a broken hip – although the local college basketball team is saving his seat.

Despite Miller’s current silence, Democratic activist Seth Clark may have unearthed a highly relevant but unspoken relationship between Miller, who ticked off many Democrats because of his endorsement of incumbent president George W Bush in 2004, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Both Miller and Clinton served in the Senate at the same time.

Back on the Fourth of July, for the CNN podcast he records at the University of Chicago, former Barack Obama campaign manager David Axelrod interviewed Paul Begala, the long time partner of Democratic strategist James Carville.

Carville and Begala ran Miller’s 1990 campaign for governor – their victory in Georgia helped persuade Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to hire the pair for his 1992 presidential campaign.

As most Georgians know, Miller took a hard turn to the right after his gubernatorial career, his subsequent appointment to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and after the 9/11 terror attacks.

In his interview with Axelrod, Begala tells of the person who persuaded him not to cut his ties with the former Georgia governor afterwards. Listen to the entire podcast here.

Below is a rough transcript of the relevant portion:

David Axelrod: You guys went on to Georgia and worked for Zell Miller who was another sort luminescent personality– ended up, sort of, on the wrong side of history…

Paul Begala: In the Senate, but by far the best governor Georgia ever produced. Really remarkable. He transformed his state. He created a state lottery which many states did in the ‘80s. But he understood power better than any of the rest of them. I mean it. In the way like the Founding Fathers did.

So he locked in all that lottery revenue, not to supplement or supplant existing revenue, but to create a new program, the HOPE Scholarship. To this day, over 90 percent of the kids at the University of Georgia are going free. They’re going for free, if you maintain a B average, so there are standards. But if you maintain a B average you go to college tuition-free, and if you’re higher, you can get books free, even room and board free. It has transformed their state and kept their smartest kids…

Axelrod: And the lottery revenue has actually gone to education?

Begala: It actually has gone…they’re the only state I know to do it right.

Axelrod: That’s always the thing, you know, which is that lotteries are sold as programs for education and then the money, it’s sort of shell game, and the money just used to enhance the rest of the budget…

Hillary Clinton speaks at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Hall. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail earlier this year. (David Becker/Getty Images)

Begala: Absolutely. They’re the only state that did right because it’s locked into their Constitution, it can’t be spent on other things. Well, some of it went to pre-K actually. So, he got them at the front-end, too.

Axelrod: So what happened with Zell Miller? Which convention did he end up speaking at the Republican —

Begala: He gave the keynote address for Bill Clinton in the 1992 convention, which is still one of the great speeches about what it is to be a Democrat. I’m serious. It ranks up there with Mario Cuomo and Barbara Jordan. It is worth people getting out…”

Axelrod: Don’t forget Barack Obama.

Begala: “Probably the best. No I’m serious. But it [Zell’s 1992 speech] is a statement about what it is to be a Democrat. And then, what happened, I think, I do, and I think his governor record, as a populist, as a progressive, is unmatched in Georgia history.

And he got to the Senate and he just hated it. He got there accidentally and tragically. He was pretty close to Paul Coverdell, the senator who died tragically. The Democratic governor at the time, Roy Barnes, really urged him — because Miller had retired as governor, the most popular figure in the state. He begged him to take it and Zell didn’t want to do it, I remember talking to him.

In between that, by the way, I was working at the White House and President Clinton had me call Zell and offer him secretary of the Navy. Zell was an old Marine; he would have been great at it. I remember him saying, “That would be the job of a lifetime, but I promised Shirley we’d stay in the mountains of Georgia and not go off on another political adventure.”

He just hated it. He hated the Senate….

Axelrod: But how did that turn him into the guy that spoke at the Republican convention?

Begala: He just became increasingly angry…

Axelrod: Which convention did he speak at?

Begala: He spoke at the Bush 2004 convention. And it really strained our friendship to say the least. Carville publicly broke with him, had donated to Zell’s campaign and publicly said I want my money back. It was just a bitter, bitter break.

I have to say, I was thinking about doing the same. And, I mean…this guy, he called me his third son. I mean, I’m really close to him. I was thinking about doing that. And I got a call from someone who said, “Look, you need to never do that, never publicly attack this man.”

And I said, “why?”

And the person said, “Because the chances are really good that you’ll outlive him and you don’t want that on your conscience. This guy’s been too important to your life.”

That person was Hillary Clinton. She called me up like an older sister and said, “Just set the politics aside, I’m totally with you…” She maintained a friendship and a relationship with Zell that didn’t really reflect in Zell’s votes. He voted with Bush almost all the time. But it was a just a human thing.

And today Zell and I are really close again. So is James [Carville] by the way. He’s gone to visit him. The governor’s had some health concerns, and it was a real blessing that advice, that no matter what your political differences are, this is somebody that I love and I have a real history with.

He introduced me to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton would have never hired Carville and me if it hadn’t had been for Zell Miller. And on top of that, personally, he’d just been such an important part of my life. And I’m really glad that I didn’t give into those more angry impulses.

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