Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, left, Bill Clinton, front and center, and George W. Bush face a portrait of Zell Miller, the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator, as they attend his funeral Tuesday at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta. (John Amis)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opinion: On Zell Miller as a model for Georgia

An outpouring of sympathy and respect from those he fought with and against, and from many others who never even met him. A visitation by a trio of former presidents, only one of whom was from his state and only two of whom belonged to his political party. An occasion for reflection on Georgia, and Georgians’ lives, both before and after he made his imprint on it, and them.

This is what the end of a statesman’s life looks like.

Zell Miller left public life officially not quite six months ago, and in largest part years earlier. Yet, he’ll never fully leave us. That’s what happens when an entire generation of Georgians is better off because a man’s vision for them came to life.

The key words there are “for them.” Miller taught at Young Harris College, but the scholarship for which he’s known was for the benefit of students, and not just at his hometown school. Georgians know all about HOPE, and the pre-K program also funded by the state lottery Miller created. They might not recall his efforts to build up the port at Savannah, now one of the state’s leading economic engines. Even his failures mattered: Miller wasn’t able to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, but the debate he started helped his successor, Roy Barnes, do it.

“He was one of the best public servants we’ve ever seen in Georgia,” Jimmy Carter said at Miller’s public funeral Tuesday, between remarks by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

“I think what the people appreciated is he governed on what he campaigned on,” former governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Wednesday at a service at the state Capitol. “He was determined, he could be very forceful and decisive, and he knew where he wanted to go. …

“Many people in the United States (then) considered Georgia kind of a backwater state. And yet Zell Miller, I think, put Georgia on the rails to become a modern state, a progressive state, and a state of achievement.”

Miller was a Democrat, but Perdue, a Republican, did not use that word, “progressive,” in the sense common today — not about Miller, who championed Bush’s re-election as president in 2004 and Nathan Deal’s re-election as governor in 2014. Rather, he meant the realization of progress by addressing the real concerns of real people. By the time Miller left office, that backwater state had hosted the world at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

“It was a pivotal time in the life of Georgia,” Deal observed Wednesday. “It represented a shift away from the status quo, a movement into the more progressive era that continues even today. That transition was difficult and dominated by large personalities, of which former Speaker of the House Tom Murphy and Zell Miller were at the forefront.”

Another forward-thinking speaker, David Ralston, serves today and by all indications will remain in place next year. Deal also fits the mold, but he’s wrapping up his second term; the race to replace him will be under way in earnest just as soon as the General Assembly gavels out Thursday. The question for voters is whether there’s a candidate of Miller’s caliber, of his inclination toward true public service.

Work your way backward from this week’s remembrances of Miller. Which candidate(s) can offer his ambitious, determined, even selfless approach?

Georgia, find yourself a governor who’ll look at you the way Zell Miller did.