Former Gov. Zell Miller lies in state in the rotunda of the Capitol as legislators file in to pay their respects to former first lady Shirley Miller (left). He was brought to the Capitol on Tuesday after a service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. Legislators lined the steps of the Capitol as his casket was carried the the rotunda, where he will lie in state until Wednesday afternoon. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Three presidents lead a high-powered crowd at Zell Miller’s funeral

For more than four decades, Zell Miller filled up every corner and conversation of political life here, never leaving statewide office, it seemed, unless it was to deliver the keynote address at first one, and then the other party’s presidential nominating convention.

And so when it came time to say goodbye to the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator who died last week at age 86, everyone who was anyone wanted to have their say.

In a remarkable display of power, hard-earned perspective and more than the occasional flash of humor, three former presidents spoke Tuesday morning at a celebration of life service for Miller in Atlanta.

Former President James Carter reflects on the life of former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller.

“On the way over here, I was thinking about how many governors of Georgia, or anywhere, had three presidents eulogize them,” George W. Bush said to knowing chuckles from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, his seatmates in the world’s most exclusive and well-protected pew at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church. “He was really one of a kind.”

The nearly two-hour service came midway through three days of public events honoring Miller, beginning with a memorial Monday in his hometown of Young Harris. Following Tuesday’s church service, Miller’s body was brought to the gold-domed Georgia Capitol, where he’d first arrived as a state senator in 1961 and eventually spent a combined six terms as lieutenant governor and governor. A steady stream of well-wishers passed by the flag-draped casket as lawmakers upstairs plunged into one of the busiest days of the legislative session.

The final event will be Wednesday, an executive funeral at the Capitol.

“I was going to come tomorrow as (a former) governor,” Carter, 93, said Tuesday, just after getting off a plane from New York City. “But then I found out I was invited to be here as a president, so I’m very glad to be here.”

It wasn’t just about the exclusive company being kept in the church, where Gov. Nathan Deal, his wife, Sandra, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms all shared the same row as the three former presidents. Behind them, a bipartisan who’s who of attendees included Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott and, seated beside each other, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus.

Still, the service felt remarkably personal, as Miller’s grandson Bryan Miller spoke first about the man he called their family’s “patriarch and the man we called ‘Paw Paw.’ Addressing the large sanctuary, where Shirley Miller, Zell Miller’s widow, and other family filled up three rows, Bryan Miller spoke movingly about a personal letter his grandfather wrote in February 2002 when he turned 70. Inside, were 14 lessons he wanted to share with those closest to him.

The lessons ranged from deeply philosophical — “Do not be afraid to fail while going after something you really want. You will always learn from it” — to downright blunt:

“Whiners are terrible people to be around. Don’t be one, ” Bryan Miller read aloud while Bush shook with laughter and whispered something to Clinton.

Meanwhile, all three men who’d been elected governors of Southern states before they were ever president spoke of how they probably couldn’t have gone so far without Miller’s advice and support.

“There is probably no one who could speak to you and feels more of a personal debt to Zell Miller, and to Shirley, than I do,” Clinton said. A year before Miller electrified the crowd by speaking on his behalf at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton recalled, the two men stayed up talking until 3 a.m. in Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion.

Miller’s advice in the wee small hours of the morning was twofold: If you want to run for president, you need to call (campaign advisers and strategists) Paul Begala and James Carville. And you need to give shorter speeches.

“Well, I took 50 percent of the advice,” Clinton said as laughter rippled through the church. “So began a long relationship. I never won a primary election until we got to Georgia.”

When he started his long-shot presidential run, Carter said, Zell and Shirley Miller campaigned for him in North Carolina and Texas. The two men’s relation was sometimes — and famously — strained over the years, something Carter nodded to almost from the moment he took to the podium.

“I’ve been friends with Zell Miller — off and on — for 55 years,” Carter quipped with exquisite timing.

But even as the crowd’s appreciative laughter was dying down, the former president was describing how he and Miller had bonded in recent years while serving as Mercer University trustees.

“I would say that Zell, more than any other governor who has ever served in the United States of in America, has done more for young people’s education,” Carter said to loud applause. “He was one of the best public servants we’ve ever seen in Georgia.”

And all he ever really wanted to be was a big-league shortstop, Bush pointed out.

“Thankfully, God made him a shaky hitter,” Bush joked, suggesting that had freed up Miller for a life of public service instead. “He was a humble man who put service over self and never forgot where he came from.

“We need more like Zell.”

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