Zell Miller, a former two-term governor and U.S. senator who gave birth to Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, has died at the age of 86.
Miller was a keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention — and a Republican National Convention. A veteran politician 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 statesman who never strayed from his basic principles, yet seemed utterly unpredictable.
Miller helped resuscitate Bill Clinton’s failing 1992 Democratic presidential campaign and ended up becoming one of the Republican Party’s most vocal supporters. In his 80s, he suffered from several illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease and late last year his family sent word that he would no longer be making any public appearances.
“I learned more from Zell Miller both professionally and personally than from anyone else I have encountered,” his grandson, Bryan Miller said Friday. “He was more than my grandfather. He was my dear friend and mentor.”
Funeral announcements weren’t immediately announced, but as word of Miller’s passing spread under the Gold Dome, politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly offered their kind words and memories.
“One of the greatest governors of the 20th century in this state, he gave Georgia hope and many many young people for generations will benefit from his vision,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican.
Describing HOPE as a program that has been “emulated but never surpassed by other states,” former President Jimmy Carter released a statement highlighting his “good friend” Miller’s long record of public service and straightforward personality.
“Growing up in the hills of North Georgia gave Zell a straight-talking approach to politics that left no one in doubt of his views on any subject, and his U.S. Marine background also gave him a patriotic love of both his state and his nation,” said Carter, who served in the state Senate with Miller and as a Mercer University trustee with him. “His love for his family and appreciation for the principles that shaped our nation are a model for anyone interested in service to others.”
Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, called Miller “a true statesman” — one who could turn a memorable phrase.
“ ‘If you ever see a turtle sitting on a fence post,’ ” Smyre recalled Miller saying as they worked to pass HOPE. “ ‘you know that he or she didn’t get up there by themselves. Somebody helped put them there.’ ”
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,” Merle Black, the Asa G. Candler professor of politics and government emeritus at Emory University, observed several years ago. 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 called (cribbing from Lord Byron) 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.
Journalists who covered Miller for years — or even days — could practically recite the stories by heart, he told them so often, so effectively.
His speech on TV at the (1992) Democratic Convention, delivered with more than a hint of Appalachian twang and just enough bygone-era stump-speaking fervor to make Madison Square Garden feel like the smallest, most uplifted mountain village, introduced Miller to a national audience. Miller turned his Expert Marksman’s mouth on Clinton’s opponents, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, in rapid-fire succession — “so much for the millionaire, now on to the billionaire,” he joked at one point.
“The national debut of Georgia Gov. Zell Miller was an evocative stemwinder in the best Democratic tradition,” raved Newsday.
Twelve years later, he was back in Madison Square Garden, back making headlines. Miller was a U.S. Senator and still a Democrat when he offered his high-profile support to President George W. Bush’s re-election bid in a speech at the Republican National Convention.
“My biggest weakness and my greatest asset are the same thing,” Miller said in 2006. “I don’t have ‘lukewarm’ on my thermometer. I feel things strongly, and whether I’m right or wrong, I express them strongly.”
Indeed, the speech caused a sensation, especially when Miller went on MSNBC afterward and angrily raised the possibility of challenging interviewer Chris Matthews to a duel.
Many Democrats were incensed. Meanwhile Miller entered the history books as the only person ever to deliver keynote addresses at both political parties’ presidential nominating conventions.
He’d come a long way from Young Harris. But in some ways, he was still right at home.
Zell Bryan Miller was born on Feb. 24, 1932, into a family where education was exalted and politics a way of life. His father, Stephen Grady Miller, had taught in a one-room school while attending Young Harris College, where he was class president. He met his future wife, Birdie Bryan, while both were teaching at the college; he’d served a term in the state Senate when, 17 days after the birth of his only son, Grady Miller succumbed to cerebral meningitis.
Left alone to raise an infant and 6-year-old daughter, Jane, Birdie Miller didn’t wallow in her grief.
“My mama didn’t just do the best she could; she did the best anyone could,” Zell Miller wrote in his book, “Corps Values: Everything You Need to Know I Learned in the Marines.”
She spent weeks hauling rocks out of a creek to build the Miller family home on a plot of land near the college campus. When Miller formally launched his gubernatorial campaign in 1990, he took reporters to see the house his mother had built on big dreams and hard work.
But the house wasn’t just a potent campaign symbol. It was where he’d begun to fall in love with politics.
Birdie served on the city council for a quarter-century, and Young Harris’s citizens frequently stopped by the rock house to chew over issues or pay their taxes. She also worked the polls on Election Day, usually accompanied by young Zell.
“I would huddle up over in the corner, and I would watch them count out the votes,” Miller recalled almost wistfully in the 2006 interview. “That’s where it all began. I loved the political process. I loved trying to figure out how to get a program through and how to get enough votes to pass something. I loved that competitive angle of it — how can we carry this county and this one? I loved it all, and then that love turned to great disappointment.”
But that would come much later.
An academic and debate star at Young Harris College, Miller won a partial scholarship to Emory University. But he felt backward and out-of-place on the cosmopolitan city campus, and after spending a night in the Gilmer County Jail drunk tank, the 21-year-old dropout enlisted in the Marines. It was a life-altering experience, after which he enrolled at the University of Georgia to study history.
At 28, the married father of two — now a professor at Young Harris College — ran for the state Senate and won.
For the nearly 40 years that followed, Miller’s career read like the modern Southern political story writ large and colorful. He worked for Gov. Lester Maddox (as his executive secretary) and Gov. Jimmy Carter (who appointed him to the state Pardons and Paroles board). He ran for Congress twice and lost. He was elected lieutenant governor four consecutive times, governor twice.
He was both ahead of his time and disappointingly of the times on race during the turbulent ’60s. Three years after courageously opposing a school-segregation bill on the floor of the state Senate in 1961, he spoke out against the federal Civil Rights Bill during his unsuccessful 1964 Democratic primary campaign for a seat in Congress.
He gambled his political fortunes on the idea of a state lottery deep in the heart of the conservative Bible Belt and was elected governor in 1990. He tried to change the state flag in the heart of Civil War country and was nearly run out of office in 1994.
But the man formerly known as “Zig Zag” held firm on the idea of the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, even when the people in his own church and some family members (“not close ones”) made it clear they were against bringing gambling to Georgia.
“He grew up in poverty in North Georgia, and he’d benefited from having access to a college education,” said Black. “He wasn’t there to be honorary governor of Georgia for four or eight years. He wanted to do something.”
After which, he made it abundantly clear, he was going home for good.
Miller left the governor’s office in January 1999 with a remarkable 85 percent approval rating and no intention of serving in elected office again. That was all behind him now, both the good — HOPE had already sent some 357,000 Georgians to college, and Gov. Roy Barnes’ election left Democrats firmly in control of the state. And the bad — besides the flag fiasco, he’d been forced to make huge cuts in state spending and jobs in his first year in office.
His life had never been all about politics. He’d sold mobile homes for awhile after losing the congressional race in 1964, and early in their marriage, Shirley and Zell Miller had bought a radio station, WZEL, and a newspaper, the Towns County Herald.
A lover of baseball since his youth, (“I would have given it all up to be a good Class B shortstop,” he said of his many accomplishments) he’d later become friends with Mickey Mantle, and he kept up his annual spring training trips even after becoming governor.
His post-gubernatorial plans included teaching at several colleges and living full time in the rock house in Young Harris. He cherished his rural North Georgia roots and resented anything that portrayed mountain folk as hillbillies — so much so that he’d publicly hounded The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for years about the comic strip “Snuffy Smith” (the newspaper finally dropped the strip in 1989).
His entire family, which now included great-grandchildren, still lived in Towns County. Plus, he owed this time to Shirley, who’d put her own banking career on hold to support his political endeavors.
But in July 2000, Gov. Barnes asked Miller to go to Washington and fill the void left by Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell’s sudden death.
“We were older and wiser, making money and as happy as we had ever been … So we tossed and turned and next morning stared at each other over our oatmeal,” Miller wrote in “A National Party No More.” “Finally, Shirley spat it out, ‘It’s what you do, isn’t it?’ ”
Before going to Washington, Miller announced he wouldn’t “play the partisan game.” He said he kept his pledge, although others aren’t so certain. At the very least, suggested Emory’s Black, he was emblematic of a dramatic shift in the storyline of modern Southern politics — with one key difference.
“At the end, his conservatism triumphed over his lifelong association with the Democratic party,” Black observed. “(But) unlike most of the other conservatives in the South who started out in the Democratic party and realigned as Republicans and Independents, he still clings to that Democratic association.”
Indeed, Miller always bristled at suggestions he should leave his party, the party of Birdie and Grady and his whole history. To him, he wasn’t the one who had strayed.
“I meant for it to be a life preserver that I was trying to throw to the Democratic party — ‘Hey, you need to grab hold of some of this thinking, ’cuz you are drifting,’ ” Miller said of his bestselling book. “It became something else. But I’ll live with that. It will be mentioned in the obituaries.”
He hoped he’d be remembered for other things, like giving Georgia schoolteachers a 6 percent salary increase for four consecutive years, appointing the first African-American woman to the Supreme Court, and, of course, HOPE.
He lost some friends near the end of his political career, he reflected in 2006, but he claimed to have found something like inner peace.
“Churchill once said that history was going to be kind to him because he was going to write it,” Miller said. “I’ve tried to do a little of that, but I don’t worry about it. I’m content to let what happened speak for itself.”
Miller is survived by his wife, Shirley Carver Miller; sons, Murphy Carver Miller and Matthew Stephen Miller; granddaughter, Asia Miller Bowles; grandsons, Justin Grady Miller, Andrew Stephen Miller, and Bryan William Miller; and eight greatgrandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Miller Institute Foundation in memory of Zell Bryan Miller
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