Former governor, senator Zell Miller has died

Former governor and senator, Zell Miller, died at 86 after suffering from failing health for several years, according to his grandson, Bryan Miller.

He was a keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention — and a Republican National Convention.

A United States senator and a two-term Georgia governor who really wanted to be a minor-league shortstop. A man unswervingly loyal to his mountain roots who came to be seen as a traitor by many in his political family. A politician who never strayed from his basic principles, yet seemed utterly unpredictable.

Zell Miller, the lifelong Democrat who gave birth to the HOPE scholarship, helped resuscitate Bill Clinton’s failing 1992 presidential campaign and ended up becoming one of the Republican party’s most vocal supporters, that was both his birthplace and the consummate backdrop for his colorful, controversial persona.

Like the Appalachian Mountains that dominated his North Georgia vistas, Miller rose improbably high and presented numerous faces to the world: The Polonius-quoting college professor who also wrote a country-western song with the down-home title "You Can't Ration Nothing (That I Ain't Done Without)." The onetime Expert Marksman Marine who later armed every Georgia newborn with a classical music CD. The unsuccessful 1980 Senate candidate dubbed "Zig Zag Zell" who roared back to become the state's most popular governor — only to see much of what he'd accomplished drowned out by the din of his late-life political drama.

“We’ll probably not see his likes again,” said Merle Black, the Asa G. Candler professor of politics and government at Emory University and co-author of the seminal volume, “Politics and Society in the South.” Black called Miller’s eight years as governor the “high point” of his career, but added, “the most interesting part of his career was at the end.”

If that’s what he’s most remembered for, Miller reflected in what he (cribbing from Lord Byron) called the “yellow leaf days” of his life, so be it. In the end, nothing mattered so much to him as the beginning.

“Coming from a single parent, not having a lot of money, no electricity until I was 7, no running water until I was in high school … I’m proud that out of that could come someone who could make it to the governor’s office,” Miller said during a 2006 interview with the Journal-Constitution. “How I got from where I came from is very important to me.”

It was part and parcel of the Zell lore: The father he never knew. The mother who built a house practically with her bare hands. The mountain boy who got lost on the streets of the big city and ultimately found himself in Marine Corps basic training.

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Services: Have not yet been announced.

Here is a timeline of his life

Feb. 24, 1932 – Zell Bryan Miller is born in Young Harris, in Towns County. Miller’s father, Stephen Grady Miller, dies 17 days later, leaving Birdie Miller to raise her infant son by herself.

1951 – Miller graduates from Young Harris Junior College, where both his father and mother taught.

1953 – After having doubts about his education while attending Emory University, Miller enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps.

1954 – Miller marries Shirley Carver. They have two sons.

1956 – Now out of the Marine Corps, Miller enrolls in the University of Georgia. He graduates with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1957. He earns a master’s degree in history in 1958.

1959 – Miller returns to Young Harris College as a professor, teaching history and political science.

1959-60 – Miller serves one term as mayor of Young Harris.

1961 – Miller enters the Georgia Senate, where he serves two terms.

1964 – Miller runs unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress.

1965-66 – Miller leads the Georgia Board of Probation as its director.

1967-68 – Miller serves as deputy director of the Georgia Department of Corrections.

1968-71 – Miller takes a leave of absence from Young Harris College to serve as executive secretary to Gov. Lester Maddox. Miller is credited with being a moderating influence on Maddox.

1971-73 – Miller heads the state’s Democratic Party as its executive director.

1973-75 – Miller serves on the state Board of Pardons and Parole.

1975 – Miller begins a 16-year run as the state’s lieutenant governor, longer than anyone else who has ever served in that role.

1980 – Miller runs for the U.S. Senate but loses in the Democratic primary to the incumbent, U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge.

1990 – Miller runs for governor, facing Andrew Young and Roy Barnes in the primary. Miller eventually beats Young in a runoff. During the campaign, Miller focuses on education and calls for a state lottery to increase funding for education. He also pledges to serve only one term as governor. Miller defeats state Sen. Johnny Isakson in the general election.

1992 – Voters approve the lottery to fund pre-k, capital and technical enhancements for Georgia schools, and the HOPE Scholarship. That same year, Miller signs into law the nation’s toughest repeat-offender law. Miller also provides key support to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. As part of that support, he serves as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention and wins rave reviews.

1993 – Miller leads an unsuccessful effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state’s flag.

1994 – Despite his earlier pledge to serve only one term, Miller seeks re-election as governor. He defeats Republican Guy Millner with 51.05 percent of the vote. During his second term, he gave the state’s teachers 6 percent raises four consecutive years.

1999 – Miller leaves office with an 85 percent approval rating.

2000 – Republican Georgia U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell dies, and Gov. Roy Barnes appoints Miller to fill Coverdell’s seat. That November, Miller wins an election to serve the final four years of Coverdell’s term.

2001 – Miller co-sponsors President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. He later backs Bush on homeland security and the deployment of troops to Iraq.

2004 – Miller chooses not to seek re-election to the Senate. He publishes “A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat,” a book critical of the party’s national leadership. He also speaks at the Republican National Convention in support of Bush’s re-election. During the speech, Miller calls the Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, “more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure” on national security.

2005 – Miller retires from the Senate and returns to teaching. He publishes another book critical of the national Democratic Party called “A Deficit of Decency.” Bush appoints Miller to the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees U.S. military cemeteries and monuments in other countries.

2008 – The Zell B. Miller Learning Center is dedicated at the University of Georgia.

2011 – In overhauling the HOPE Scholarship, Gov. Nathan Deal creates the Zell Miller Scholarship to provide full tuition to the state’s top public college students.

2014 – Miller weighs in on Georgia’s two biggest statewide elections. He endorses Democrat Michelle Nunn in the U.S. Senate race while also declaring his support for Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election campaign.

Sources: The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The National Governors Association, The Georgia Political Heritage Program