As his life drew to a close, the bridge burner in Zell Miller did his best to rebuild what he could.
The former governor and U.S. senator ended a self-imposed exile on a hot July day in 2012. The occasion was a Lake Lanier fundraiser for Doug Collins, a preacher and state lawmaker who had ambitions of becoming a congressman. Miller’s grandson, Bryan, was running the Republican’s campaign.
The famous shock of white hair was still intact, and his hawk-like nose still jutted over an ever-clenched jaw. But the cane was new, and Miller described himself as an 80-year-old man on 100-year-old legs.
I had only seen him a few times since his appearance at the Republican National Convention in 2004, the one where he turned his back on his Democratic party and endorsed George W. Bush for president. His had become one of the great vanishing acts of Georgia politics.
“I don’t hear from anybody much,” Miller said. “I stay away from the limelight and politics and all that.”
The final zig in a six-decade public career had been the most painful. Lifelong friends dropped him, loudly and with vitriol. He replied with barbed wire rather than honeysuckle. Republicans became his new friends, pressing for endorsements. Miller quickly came to symbolize the drift of white Southerners to their side, though he never formally joined the GOP himself.
At that fundraiser eight years later, we began talking. Miller listed his health challenges, which included a brutal bout with shingles and a fall down a steep flight of 13 stairs at home. Ultimately, we got around to the motive for his philosophical about-face. It wasn’t just the 9/11 attacks, he said – though that was much of it.
“I had a conversion. I had a late-life conversion. I changed my views on several things. This had to do with my son [Matt] going blind and me having to carry him to the doctor with his hand on my shoulder,” Miller said.
But his anger was now spent. Gone was the sharp-tempered man who once could spew hot lava, ever so quaintly, from the rocking chair he kept in his state Capitol office. This Zell Miller knew that his last days in the public eye had lacked a certain grace, and wanted to repair what damage he could.
I mentioned the interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that immediately followed his 2004 appearance at the GOP convention. He had challenged the talk show host to a duel – or at least, loudly wished he could.
Miller cringed. “That was terrible. I embarrassed myself. I’d rather it had not happened,” he said.
Safer ground took us to the topic of mutual acquaintances. He asked about my good friend and mentor, Bill Shipp, a former political columnist for this newspaper. He was two years younger than Miller, and his health, I replied, was about as good. Challenging, in other words.
“I wish I could see him again,” Miller said. “The last time we spoke, I told him, ‘I hope I outlive you so I can piss on your grave.’”
Like I said: Barbed wire.
“I regret that,” Miller added.
And so, only a few weeks later, I loaded Bill Shipp and his wheelchair into my car, and we began the drive to 709 Miller St., the rock-walled house in easy walking distance of Young Harris College, where a young Zell Miller once taught.
Shirley Miller, the governor’s ever-present wife, showed us into the living room, where her husband waited in a dark nylon athletic suit. He’d just finished his physical therapy.
Shipp and I sat on the couch, Miller in the armchair that had become his office. After a few awkward moments, the former governor – he never liked being addressed as ‘Senator Miller’ — broke the ice with the topic that united us all: Politics.
Doug Collins, the Republican congressional candidate whose campaign was being run by Miller’s grandson, was locked in a primary run-off with radio host Martha Zoller. She had just been endorsed by Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate, and I made the uncomfortable observation that Palin’s name might mean more than a former Georgia governor who had been out of sight for several years.
“People forget quickly,” Miller agreed. (In the end, I was wrong. Collins won the GOP nomination, and the Ninth District congressional seat.)
Miller confessed that he talked to former Gov. Carl Sanders now and then on the phone. Each took turns telling the other that they were Georgia’s greatest governor, Miller said with a grin. (The urbane Sanders would die in 2014.)
Shirley Miller eventually summoned us to lunch.
Miller was a master of baseball trivia, and while Shipp washed up, Miller showed me his collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia. “I knew him when he was drunk and when he was sober – when he went off to Betty Ford,” he said.
Lunch was pulled pork, beans, chips, cole slaw and submarine sandwiches. No one ate the sandwiches. During the meal, Miller reached across the table and brought out two signed copies of his newest book — this one on disappearing mountain life. He had christened it, “Purt Nigh Gone.”
“That’s what both of us are,” he said to Shipp.
We returned to the living room, but not for long. Shipp was fading. We all stood. Miller looked straight at Shipp as he shook his old critic’s hand. “I love you,” Miller said. He repeated it twice more, to make sure Shipp heard him right.
Shipp acknowledged that he may have disagreed with Miller some, but he added this: “You’re the best thing that ever happened to this state.”
The Millers walked us out to the car. With Shipp belted in at shotgun, Shirley Miller gave my companion one last embrace — and I suddenly felt a deep appreciation for a woman who had spent much of her life smoothing out Zell Miller’s rough edges, giving the last tender word that he couldn’t.
As I was writing this, I received a phone call from Keith Mason, who had been Miller’s chief of staff. His relationship with Miller, too, had cooled after the 2004 turnabout. Years passed before they made up, but it eventually happened. “He was very much into rebuilding bridges with people who had strongly disagreed with him in the past,” Mason said.
By the time 2014 rolled around, Miller had decided that enough damage had been done, Mason said.
Miller would endorse a second term for Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican. But the former governor would also endorse Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, in her (ultimately unsuccessful) bid for the U.S. Senate.
“There was no way he was going to his grave and not support Sam Nunn’s daughter,” Mason said. “He was not in the mood to have any more breaks.”
It was the last course correction of a long political life.
Ed Kilgore, a former Zell Miller staffer who now writes for New York magazine, has this take on his former boss: