Family: Zell Miller's public life has come to an end

In politics, “zig-zag” can be considered a pejorative, until you realize that this is also how we describe a bolt of lightning.

A streak of energy darts this way and that, the air boils and the thunder crashes. Then comes the silence.

This is the stage of life that Zell Miller has reached.

What follows is not an obituary. The 85-year-old former Georgia governor and U.S. senator, though frail, rests comfortably in the rock house on Miller Street that his widowed mother built in the mountain town of Young Harris. Shirley Miller, his wife of 63 years, is there — as always.

But his family has declared that the former governor’s public life is at an end. There will be no more speeches, no more appearances. Visitations are restricted to close family members.

PHOTOS: Zell Miller through the years

You’ll recall that Miller took a fall at a Young Harris College basketball game back in February 2016. He was taken to a local hospital, then on to Emory University. Tests there found proteins associated with Parkinson’s with Lewy bodies – a form of the disease associated with dementia.

This is not the same iteration that afflicts U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and actor Michael J. Fox.

“Zell is not experiencing a lot of the tremors, but he is experiencing the cognitive symptoms that are associated with this type of Parkinson’s,” said grandson Bryan Miller, who heads up the Miller Institute – a public policy and leadership organization intended to carry on the legacy of the governor who gave Georgia the HOPE scholarship and pre-k education.

The Miller Institute is now handling all of Governor Miller’s official business, and on Tuesday sent along these thoughts from Shirley Miller:

“We want other families with loved ones suffering from Parkinson’s to know they are not alone,” said Georgia’s former first lady. “We understand the daily challenges that are associated with a disease that has no cure. In times like these, we lean on our faith and believe that there is no challenge too great that we cannot overcome with God’s grace.”

Zell Miller’s friends had suspected something like this. In February, he missed a gala dinner and fundraiser for the Miller Institute. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton sent video greetings to Miller. The ex-governor still doesn’t know this happened.

Last month, former state agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin died. Miller was nowhere to be seen, even though, in large measure, Irvin was responsible for bringing Miller into politics. When Irvin left to become agriculture commissioner in 1969, Miller replaced him as top aide to Gov. Lester Maddox.

Bryan Miller said the last extensive conversation he had with his granddad was 14 months ago. The topic was the formation of the Miller Institute. “The first thing he said was, ‘As long as it’s not solely about me. Celebrate HOPE, celebrate pre-k, celebrate the 40 years of public service, but promise me you’ll make it about the future,’” Bryan Miller said.

A first class of 40 or so young people is being assembled now.

We were in the Miller Institute’s digs in Vinings, and began swapping notes on his grandfather’s life.

Miller spent 16 years in the purgatory of the lieutenant governor’s office. During that time, in 1980, he mounted a Democratic primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge – losing, but weakening the incumbent so that he fell to Republican Mack Mattingly in November.

Miller won the governorship in 1990 by persuading Georgia to ditch its constitutional objections to gambling. He proposed a state lottery that would pave the way for good students to win tuition-free college educations.

He went on to play a crucial role in Bill Clinton’s 1992 Democratic nomination as president. His reward was the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Gardens in New York.

As governor, Miller did his best to preserve the biracial coalition that kept Georgia Democrats in power. He appointed Thurbert Baker as attorney general. And Al Scott, a Savannah state senator, as labor commissioner. (Democrat David Poythress, a white candidate, would defeat Scott in a 1992 special election.)

Miller even tried to bring down Georgia’s ’56 state flag with its Confederate battle emblem. He failed, and it almost cost him his re-election in ‘94.

But Zell Miller was indeed a man of zigs and zags. Many Georgians will remember only the post-9/11 swath he cut through the national scene. Gov. Roy Barnes had appointed a retired Governor Miller to the U.S. Senate in 2000 upon the sudden death of Republican incumbent Paul Coverdell.

Miller quickly became an ally of President George W. Bush. A late-life religious awakening led Miller to renounce his support for abortion rights. In 2004, Miller was again in Madison Square Gardens. This time, to give the keynote address to the Republican National Convention that nominated Bush for his second term.

It was a contentious address that showed Miller at his most combative. In a post-speech TV appearance, Miller famously wished he could challenge Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” to a duel. Lifelong friends cut ties with him.

When Miller left the Senate in 2005, he was an isolated figure, making endorsements almost exclusively in Republican races — until he backed Democrat Michelle Nunn’s failed U.S. Senate bid in 2014.

“I don’t hear from anybody much. I stay away from the limelight and politics and all that,” Miller said when I ran into him in 2012. He was the centerpiece at a fundraiser for Doug Collins, a Republican then making his first bid for Congress. (Bryan Miller was Collins’ campaign manager.)

More important, Zell Miller had begun his efforts to rebuild the bridges burnt by his final philosophical shift. He winced when I mentioned his famous “duel” confrontation with Matthews.

“That was terrible. I embarrassed myself. I’d rather it had not happened, ” Miller said then. “But Chris Matthews is not one of my favorite people.”

As we sat, Miller told me that the last time the two had talked, he had said terrible things to Bill Shipp, the former Journal-Constitution columnist. He wanted to make amends. I drove Shipp up to Young Harris a month later. We toured the house, and Miller showed us his two favorite photographs. One was of him watching a Super Bowl next to President Clinton in the White House theater. The other is of Miller, sitting in the same chair, but next to George W. Bush, watching a movie.

A truce between the former governor and retired journalist was declared over a lunch that showed Shirley Miller at her peace-making best. Zell Miller’s wife is worth a brief detour. “Shirley was the breadwinner for his entire career. Shirley was the banker. She made the money. She ran the house and funded his ability to do all of this stuff,” said Bryan Miller, one of four Miller grandchildren.

The grandson said that Paul Begala and James Carville, the Democratic strategy team that put Zell Miller in the Governor’s Mansion, have reconnected. Miller even patched things up with Chris Matthews — though it was the “Hardball” host who made the first move, the grandson said. Matthews confirmed this via an email passed on by a spokeswoman on Tuesday.

“Awhile back I wrote him to say how much I respect his service to our country. I certainly do respect him. I have tremendous respect for patriots. Zell Miller counts in that department,” Matthews said.

We are likely to learn more about Zell Miller over the next few months. His grandson pulled out a file that contained Miller’s final project: An unfinished book on Lester Maddox, Georgia’s last segregationist governor.

So far as I know, Zell Miller never met Donald Trump. But in his notes, Miller focused on a very specific account one of Maddox’s speeches in 1974, made as part of Maddox’s unsuccessful attempt to return as governor.

It contained overtones that we’d now recognize as downright Trumpian.

Maddox told a crowd that Georgia should be purged of its excesses. The phrase that Zell Miller had homed in on: “You know what Ex-Lax is, don’t you?” Maddox asked. “Well, I want to be your Ex-Lax.”

We’ve already told you that Zell Miller is the only figure to give keynote addresses at both Democratic and Republican nominating conventions.

The former Marine sergeant may also be the only man who declined the job of secretary of the U.S. Navy. Twice. After he won the presidency, Clinton offered him the post. Miller declined – he wanted to oversee the launch of the state lottery and HOPE scholarship that year.

After Bush’s re-election in 2004, Miller was offered the post again. “Shirley just told me about it this weekend,” Bryan Miller said. “He thought about it long and hard, and he felt that because he had originally told Bill Clinton no, he felt that he just needed to go and retire.”

We are in the midst of a period of American history in which we have declared the best political experience to be no political experience at all. It is the antithesis of Zell Miller. The man toiled 31 years in the field of public affairs before he became the skilled governor who rocked the status quo.

“How many people can actually have a 40-year career in public service? With 24-hour news, with instant communication what it is today, how many people can genuinely have that long of a career serving in government?” his grandson asked me.

In the current climate, it may soon be as rare as a lightning strike.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.