WASHINGTON — Zell Miller is telling a tale, a parable about a mountaineer, his new bride and their stubborn mule.
The silver-haired senator from Georgia is seated in his office on Capitol Hill, amid small shrines to Mickey Mantle and the U.S. Marine Corps, wearing a charcoal gray suit and shiny black cowboy boots. He has made it his mission lately to torment the Democratic Party, his lifelong political home, and verbally torture John F. Kerry, the party's presumptive presidential nominee.
The tale involves a balky mule being hit with a 2-by-4 and ends with the mountaineer threatening his young wife with the same. As Miller grins, having made his point about asserting one's self, he steals a glance at his chief of staff, a young woman sitting a deferential distance away.
It seems a small concession to the notion that, just maybe, in this age, among a certain set, joking about spousal abuse may not be the most politic thing, funny as the story is. But then the 72-year-old Miller is retiring at the end of his term early next year, and if there are any bridges left standing, it is not for lack of incendiary effort.
He broke with his fellow Democrats from the start of the Bush administration, delivering key votes to install John Ashcroft as attorney general and cosponsoring the president's first tax cut. He has written a thin, angry book, "A National Party No More," that depicts the Democratic Party as a mushy-headed, liberal-kowtowing parody of its old self. He has enthusiastically endorsed Bush's reelection, and taken to appearances like one earlier last month, before Georgia Republicans, where he savaged Kerry as a man "so out of touch with the average American it would be comical if it were not so dangerous."
His remarks drew an uproarious ovation, not unlike the one that greeted Miller's paint-blistering keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention where, in the service of Bill Clinton, Miller assailed Bush's father as a "timid man" and a cosseted millionaire who "just doesn't get it" when people complained about hard times.
The turnabout has left many longtime friends and political allies sad and angry and, above all, perplexed.
"In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, nobody labored in the vineyards of the Democratic Party as consistently and loyally, from the national level to the state level, as Zell Miller," said Keith Mason, who served 10 years ago as staff chief to then-Gov. Miller and still regards him with great affection and appreciation. "That's why so many Democrats were surprised when he suddenly and consistently supported the president."
Bobby Kahn, the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, put it more succinctly: "Something went bad wrong."
Miller, a mountain man himself, insists he is trying to save the Democratic Party, which in just about a generation has gone from dominating Southern politics to flailing for survival. He offers a simple explanation, the one involving the plank and the thick-headed mule.
"I can't use a little hickory switch," Miller says, with an accent as rich and smooth as burled wood. "I haven't got long. I have to use strong words, or whatever it is, to get my point across. I'm going to be gone, I'm going to be history in just a few months."
A progressive governor
People of various persuasions agree on one thing: Miller was an extraordinarily accomplished governor. Some call him the best Georgia ever had.
The very model of a Southern progressive, Miller eliminated the state sales tax on food, easing a burden on the poor. He appointed blacks to groundbreaking positions and tried unsuccessfully to remove the Confederate stars-and-bars from the state flag. He reformed the welfare system, stiffened the penalties for drunk driving, advocated a two-strikes-you're-out policy for violent offenders and instituted boot camps for juvenile lawbreakers.
He was a risk-taker and not one to shrink from fights -- often personally nasty ones -- with members of his own party. (In one famous exchange with state House Leader Tom Murphy, a frustrated Miller referred to the Murphy "mausoleum and cemetery" as the place where legislation died; Murphy said he wished he had a mausoleum and, if he did, guaranteed "there would be another person interred in it.")
The signature accomplishment of Miller's eight years in office was creation of a state lottery, with proceeds funding preschool programs, technical training and free tuition for any Georgia college freshman who kept at least a B average in high school. Pushing a lottery in Georgia was a gutsy, controversial move, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist and longtime Miller watcher at the University of Georgia. "He was warned by folks, 'This is the buckle of the Bible Belt, you can't go out and endorse gambling,' but he went ahead, doggedly," Bullock said.