Gov. Zell Miller in a moment of thought in his office prior to the unvieling of his official portrait on Dec. 30, 1998. RICH ADDICKS / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opinion: Zell Miller, a great statesman and U.S. Marine

Because I was born at Ft. Benning, grew up in Columbus and graduated from the University of Georgia, I always had an affinity for the state of Georgia during my 18 years of service as a Senator from Texas. One of my dearest friends and strongest allies was Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell. His voice was squeaky but he had the heart of a lion and his memory will always be very close to my heart. When Paul suddenly died from a brain hemorrhage in the summer of 2000, it was the saddest moment of my Senate career.

Paul’s appointed replacement was former Democratic Governor Zell Miller. While I had never met Zell, I admired him because of the HOPE Scholarship program he had established in Georgia. The HOPE scholarship took the proceeds of the Georgia lottery out of the state budget and used them to fund merit-based scholarships of $8 billion and counting for the best and brightest students in Georgia to attend college, and $5 billion for pre-kindergarten programs. In the process, the program helped elevate Georgia Tech and University of Georgia to the elite ranks of the nation’s public universities. By contrast, most other states promised that proceeds from state lotteries would go to education, but once the funds were part of the state budget they were fungible and were spent in ways that produced negligible effects on education.

When Zell came to Washington I went to his office, introduced myself and told him that having loved Paul Coverdell so much that I was concerned that I might resent him holding Paul’s seat and that might affect our ability to have a good working relationship. I told him I was determined not to let that happen. Zell told me that he loved Paul Coverdell too. Thus began a friendship and a political alliance that would prove to be a highlight of my Senate career. Zell always told people that we were destined to be fast friends by the fact that we both owned yellow labs named after August McCrae of Lonesome Dove fame.

At our first meeting, Zell told me that he had no political ambitions or political IOUs, and that he intended to try to do what in his best judgment was in the interest of Georgia and America. A lot of politicians say those things, but Zell Miller did them.

I had started my political career as a Democrat mostly because my grandmother viewed Republicans as those guys in blue shirts who burned down her mother’s house. I co-authored the Reagan program in the House because I thought it was the right thing to do, and when the Democrats threw me off the Budget Committee, I resigned from Congress and ran again as a Republican.

Zell had been a Democrat office-holder his whole political career and was proud to be a Democrat. But it didn’t take him long to figure out that most of his Democrat colleagues in the Senate held views very different from him on national defense, federal spending and the role of government in a free society. I watched this conflict unfold as Zell seethed when members of his party described American soldiers serving in Iraq as occupiers. Zell was an old Marine who viewed American soldiers as liberators, not occupiers, and he was incapable of sitting back and letting them be maligned. He supported the President’s policies on Iraq and whether you agreed or disagreed with his position, it was a gutsy action in a controversial war. In a very real sense when those overjoyed ladies held up their purple fingers after voting in the first free election in Iraq in their lifetime, it was a testament to what Zell Miller believed in.

He and I led the successful effort to exempt pickups and SUVs from the new fuel efficiency standards sought by Democrats. Zell saw the pickup truck and SUV as important tools of working people that would become unaffordable if the arbitrary new standards were imposed. He thought the well-being of working people was more important than the marginal benefits of the new standards. Zell was not only one of the 12 Democrat senators to vote for the 2001 Bush tax cut, he was the only Democrat to co-sponsor the legislation and work to make the tax cuts permanent.

The last legislative battle that Zell and I led occurred right before I retired from the Senate in 2002. Zell believed that the new Department of Homeland Security should be totally focused on protecting the American homeland and that the President should be able to hire the very best, reward achievement and fire people who didn’t get the job done. The Democrats strongly objected to any deviation from the policy of protecting union jobs and work rules that were designed to provide government employment security rather than homeland security. The homeland security debate deadlocked the Senate for months and was resolved only by the 2002 elections where for the first time in American history a new President had his party take control of the Senate in a midterm election. A testament to Zell’s success in helping to design the Department of Homeland Security is that no attack similar to 9/11 has occurred since.

In these battles, Zell got to know President George W. Bush, also a former governor. He shared the President’s affection for dogs, baseball and public education, but Zell was especially attracted by President Bush’s spirituality. Their friendship was to give rise to one of the important acts of Zell Miller’s political life.

Having been the keynote speaker at the Democratic convention in 1992, Zell decided to accept an invitation to speak at the Republican national convention in 2004. That speech was one of the great political speeches of our era. Zell lashed out against what he saw as an assault on the American soldier and the fact that in his opinion Democrats were playing politics with national security. He concluded the speech by endorsing George W. Bush for President.

The day he gave that speech the RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Bush leading the race by an insignificant 0.4 percent. Two days after Zell’s speech, the Bush lead had surged to 6.3 percent and for all practical purposes the election was over.

Zell Miller stands at the very end of a long line of Democrats who have supported a strong national defense, an aggressive foreign policy and an economy based on free enterprise and individual liberty. On issues from national defense to SALT II to the Clinton nationalized healthcare program, Democrats like Richard Russell, “Scoop” Jackson and Richard Shelby have stood up for what they believed to be in America’s interest.

Zell passed me a note one day telling me that recent vote ratings found him to be more conservative than eight Senate Republicans. I wrote back that I knew exactly who those eight Republicans were and I was not the least bit impressed. But in truth I couldn’t have been more impressed by Zell Miller. What impressed me was the extraordinary courage that Zell exhibited in standing up for his convictions.

Zell passed away on March 23, leaving behind Shirley, his devoted wife of 64 years who was always at his side in Washington, Atlanta and his hometown, Young Harris.

America has been blessed with a few good men like Zell Miller in both our great political parties who have put our country and its people first. Our future would be as promising as our past if we had a few more Marines like Zell Miller.

Phil Gramm is a former U.S. Senator from Texas.

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Phil Gramm is a former U.S. Senator from Texas.