A bipartisan celebration of a maverick Georgian: ‘Zell Miller changed my life’

Former Gov. Zell Miller and his wife Shirley Miller. Curtis Compton,ccompton@ajc.com

Former Gov. Zell Miller and his wife Shirley Miller. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, two former presidents on opposite sides of the political spectrum: They all united Tuesday to celebrate former Gov. Zell Miller in a bipartisan lovefest in honor of his 85th birthday.

The dinner honored the Zell Miller Institute for Public Policy, a new player in Georgia politics dedicated to bipartisan policies and public service. The ex-governor couldn’t make it to the event – he’s recovering from shingles and couldn’t travel – though his grandson Bryan Miller read a letter in his honor.

A string of politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, sent their best wishes in person or through video messages. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called him a “model for so many of us.” Sen. Johnny Isakson, his one-time rival, also praised his legacy.

And former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both addressed the crowd via videotape, with Clinton saying he’ll always remember that Miller was “one of the very few people – besides my mother and Hillary – who actually thought I had a chance to be elected president in 1992.”

Zell Miller served in a mind-boggling range of elected offices in Georgia, from mayor to state senator to lieutenant governor before defeating Isakson to win the governor’s office in 1990.

The Democrat staked his campaign on a promise to establish a state lottery to fund higher education and pre-kindergarten programs – pioneering the popular HOPE scholarship – and tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag.

His successor, Roy Barnes, tapped him to serve as U.S. Senator in 2000 after Republican Paul Coverdell’s death, and Miller showcased his maverick streak in Washington when he famously delivered a keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

House Speaker David Ralston credited Miller’s “fierce mountain independence” and his disdain for the “sugar-laced intrigues of the special interests” for his success in politics. But the Blue Ridge Republican had a confession to make.

“I never voted for him,” he said to laughter. “That’s just the way mountain Republicans and mountain Democrats are.”shirleyzellmiller

Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who advised Miller’s 1990 campaign, repeated five words throughout his tribute: “Zell Miller changed my life.”

He recalled how Miller helped convince Clinton to hire him and James Carville for his 1992 presidential run. He recounted Miller’s close relationship with Mickey Mantle and his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball. And he lamented the challenge of writing speeches for the honey-tongued wordsmith.

“Zell would use rhymes like an Appalachian rapper,” said Begala, invoking one of Miller’s most known quotes: “I’m southern born, and southern bred, and when I die, I’ll be southern dead.”

The night closed with former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, another vanquished Miller opponent in that 1990 race.

“Zell Miller changed my life because he beat the daylights out of me,” he said, adding that the two had an unwritten pact not to go negative on each other in the Democratic primary battle.

“He was praising me,” said Young, “and taking my voters and making them love him.”

It was almost 9 p.m. and Donald Trump’s first Capitol Hill address was about to begin. But before the crowd left, Young had one final piece of advice for the group of lawmakers and policymakers who had crowded into the Georgia World Congress Center ballroom.

“If the rest of the world can learn some of the lessons we learned from each other,” he said, “I don’t think we would have to worry about the future.”


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