Three ex-presidents praise Zell Miller’s legacy in Georgia

‘A life in politics is about other people’
Former Presidents Bill Clinton talks to George W. Bush, right, as they and Jimmy Carter, left, attend the funeral for former Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller held at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Tuesday March 27, 2018, in Atlanta. Miller, a conservative democrat, died at 86 from complications from Parkinson's disease four days ago on March 23 at his home in Young Harris, Ga. (John Amis)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Former Presidents Bill Clinton talks to George W. Bush, right, as they and Jimmy Carter, left, attend the funeral for former Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller held at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Tuesday March 27, 2018, in Atlanta. Miller, a conservative democrat, died at 86 from complications from Parkinson's disease four days ago on March 23 at his home in Young Harris, Ga. (John Amis)

Former Presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton paid their final respects to former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller at his Tuesday funeral, lacing their speeches with emotional - and, at times, humorous - memories of the Democrat.

The three ex-presidents joined hundreds of mourners at the service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church.

Bryan Miller, who launched an institute that fosters bipartisanship in his grandfather’s honor, preceded the three presidents by detailing the 14 lessons the politician shared with close relatives when he turned 70.

The ceremony on Tuesday is the second in a trio of memorials for Miller, who died Friday at the age of 86. Hundreds gathered in his hometown of Young Harris to pay tribute to the politician, who engineered the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship and pre-kindergarten program and later served in the U.S. Senate.

After the funeral, Miller’s remains were brought to the Capitol where he will lie in state until an executive state funeral on Wednesday. All the memorials are public.

We’ll be providing live updates throughout the event below.


12:51 p.m. - The funeral ended and friends, family and mourners filed out of the church. Carter and Bush left out of a side entrance, while Clinton kibitzed with the crowd for a few minutes.


12:30 p.m. - Shortly before the funeral ended, pastor Don Harp encouraged mourners to read the AJC column by Jim Galloway about how Miller made up with journalist Bill Shipp before his death.

“Mending fences takes a lot of grace,” said Harp.


12:05 p.m. - Clinton said he felt an immense “personal debt” to Miller, and he recounted a 1991 visit to the governor’s mansion where the two stayed up until 3 a.m. chatting about his presidential ambitions.

Miller’s advice was two-fold: If you want to run for president, you need to call Paul Begala and James Carville. And you need to give shorter speeches.

“Well, I took 50 percent of the advice,” he said to chuckles. “So began a long relationship. I never won a primary election until we got to Georgia.”

He added: “I not only liked Zell Miller, I admired him.”

Clinton urged mourners to look beyond the HOPE scholarship, beyond the pre-K program, beyond his stint in the U.S. Senate and his convention speeches and remember the simple fact that Miller “never forgot where he came from.”

“A life in politics,” Clinton added, “is about other people.”

As he closed, he looked to Miller’s widow and said he hoped his speech has “somewhat repaid his gifts and kindness to me.”

Turning to the casket, Clinton bid his old friend farewell.

“My friend, you are finally home. You fought the good fight.”


11:55 a.m. - Carter, who had an often strained relationship with Miller, nodded to their tumultuous past almost as soon as he took the podium.

“I’ve been friends with Zell Miller – off and on – for 55 years,” he said to laughs.

He added: “Zell Miller was very outspoken as you know ... maybe if I got him to speak at my second convention, I would have been re-elected, too.”

Carter said Miller might be the most important governor for education policy in the state’s history, and that the two bonded in later years when they both served on Mercer University’s board.

“He was one of the best public servants we’ve ever seen in Georgia,” he said.


11:45 a.m. - Bush opened his speech with a quip, wondering aloud how many governors have had three presidents eulogize their funeral. “He really was one of a kind,” said Bush.

Then he gave some insight about why he trekked to Atlanta for the memorial.

“In 2004, Zell stood up to speak for me,” said Bush, invoking his 2004 speech to the Republican National Convention. “Now it’s my honor to speak for him.”

He talked about how Miller once wore blue jeans to the Atlanta Opera, how he got into politics because of his family’s love of politics, about his 85 percent approval rating after his stint in Georgia’s top office.

“Take it from me,” said Bush to laughter, “that’s not typical for a politician.”

The ex-president said Miller asked for no favors or special treatment after he bucked his party to support Bush, aside from a spot on a national battlefield commission.

“He never forgot where he came from, or where he’s headed,” he said, adding: “His life is a testament to all that is good, and all that is possible to the country we love.”


11:35 a.m. -  Miller’s grandson, Bryan Miller, preceded the three presidents with an emotional speech that included a personal letter that his grandfather wrote to family members in February 2002 when he turned 70. Inside, were 14 lessons he wanted to share with those closest to him.

Here are a few:

  • Do not be afraid to fail while going after something you really want. You will always learn from it. Never give up. Persistence will overcome everything else. I guarantee it.
  • If you listen more than you talk, you will not only learn more, but people will think you are smarter, not dumber, than you really are.
  • For every action there is a consequence – always. It can be a good consequence or a bad one, but it will come just as sure as night follows the day.
  • Use frequently but sincerely the words, "I'm sorry", "Thank you", and "I love you."
  • Keep a good sense of humor, and laugh at yourself more than you do others.

And this punchy one:

  • Those who teach lessons are not smart or know everything. They've just lived a long time.


11:10 a.m. - Miller’s flag-draped casket was carried solemnly down the sanctuary’s center aisle as the funeral began.

Carter, Clinton and Bush sat beside each other in the front row, alongside Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife Sandra and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Behind them sat dozens of Georgia dignitaries and friends, relatives and students of Miller. On the opposite aisle, Miller’s closest family members and confidants sat front-and-center.


10:55 a.m. - The three former presidents walked together into the sanctuary minutes before the service began. Outside the church, traffic was disrupted as the procession began.


10:15 a.m. - A who’s who of Georgia political leaders is now gathering to pay last respects.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Gov. Nathan Deal, former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, U.S. Rep. David Scott, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and Attorney General Chris Carr are among the dignitaries.

So are several candidates for governor, including Stacey Evans, a former Democratic state lawmaker, and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. More state officials and candidates are also expected at Wednesday’s event.

The arrangements for the three memorials are being handled by another politico: Bubba McDonald, the owner of a funeral home and a member of the Public Service Commission.

In 1990, he ran as a Democrat against Miller for the party’s nomination with the support of Miller’s arch-rival: Then-House Speaker Tom Murphy. The two made up years ago; as governor, Miller appointed McDonald to a vacant seat on the PSC.


9:45 a.m. - We just got a copy of the order of worship at Miller’s funeral.

Bush, Carter and Clinton will speak in that order. Here's a little more on that from our AJC colleague Jim Galloway:

"Amazing Grace" is on the program, a standard at Southern funerals well suited to a man more than conversant in the language of country music. But remember that Miller once proposed a program that issued every newborn a cassette tape or CD of Mozart or Bach, intended to stimulate nascent intellects.

The final piece of music at today's service: The "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah," to be sung by the Georgia Boy Choir.

Here's betting that Miller himself had a hand in that choice.

9:30 a.m. - Miller was a close friend and adviser to Bill Clinton. He was an outspoken supporter of George W. Bush. He made nominating speeches for both of them at their party conventions.

But he had a far more strained relationship with the third ex-president who will speak at his Tuesday service in Atlanta. Find out why he and Jimmy Carter often tussled in the Morning Jolt.


8:55 a.m. - Miller left a lasting imprint on plenty of reporters, too.

AJC investigative editor Ken Foskett, who once covered the statehouse, remembers Miller's driven - and funny - side. Another ex-Atlanta reporter shared two stories too edgy to make his obituary. And I wrote about how he played a forceful role in shaping my life, even though I never met him.