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The Democrat Republicans love to love

Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia doesn't hesitate to speak his mind about the failures of the party that he'll never leave.

June 09, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

The lottery barely passed. But the HOPE scholarship program turned out to be a huge success, lifting Miller's approval ratings to 85%, with equal support from Democrats and Republicans alike. "He's a remarkably agile, gifted politician," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican pollster who has spent much of his career working in Georgia.

The philosophical roots of Miller's convictions -- self-reliance and giving others the chances he never had -- apparently grew out of the Appalachian hollow where he grew up.

His father died 17 days after Miller was born. His mother, Birdie, built the family's small stone house with rocks she plucked from a nearby creek. The Millers raised chickens in a corner of the living room, and managed without indoor plumbing until after Zell left for college. The senator still lives in the house, in the mountain hamlet of Young Harris. Obviously, much has changed; for one thing, the old dirt road is now Route 76, a busy, multilane highway that bears Miller's name.

He is widely revered in Georgia, the way politicians often are once they quit running. But Miller served a long, not always easy apprenticeship in state government, including 16 years as lieutenant governor before winning the top job in 1990. There were several losing campaigns along the way, including a hapless 1980 bid for U.S. Senate, and enough shifting around on positions to acquire the dubious nickname "Zigzag Zell."

"He's very good at reading where the public is at any moment in time and being able to trim his sails to the winds," said Rusty Paul, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman, who nonetheless welcomes Miller's switch to Bush without questioning its sincerity. "I think he genuinely does believe the national Democratic Party has strayed from its roots," Paul said.

But now it is Miller, for a change, who accuses his political opponent of slip-sliding around, suggesting Kerry's moderation in the presidential race is little more than a masquerade. (He waves off his lavish praise of the Massachusetts senator just a few years ago at a Democratic dinner in Atlanta, suggesting Kerry just happened to give a very good, patriotic speech that night.) "He hasn't got a trace of DLC in his DNA," Miller scoffs, referring to the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group that has embraced Kerry's candidacy.

Miller acknowledges his own views have changed over time, including a relatively recent turn against legalized abortion. "I hope I have grown," the senator says. "Surely to God I'm not the same person that grew up in that small little mountain village.... Of course my views have changed over the years. And America has changed over the years."

Asked the difference between his evolution and the transformation he sees Kerry attempting, Miller's gray eyes grow cold and his voice tightens. "I'm not running for anything," he replies.

Lured from retirement

Miller was happily retired, living in Young Harris with his wife, Shirley, and their two yellow Labs, teaching at the local college, when Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes came calling back in 2000. The state's Republican senator, Paul Coverdell, had died suddenly and Barnes wanted his fellow Democrat to fill the vacancy.

Miller was loath to accept the appointment, having long given up his desire to go to Washington. (He even turned down a dream job to be Navy secretary under Clinton.) Miller told Barnes no, but relented when pressed. It was the old Marine in him, he told reporters. "I have an obligation to give but one response when my governor asks me to serve," Miller said, "the response that was drilled into me at boot camp in Parris Island: 'Yes, sir!' "

Today, he makes little secret of his disgust for Washington and most of the left-leaning Democrats who dominate the party on Capitol Hill. "There have been times, especially my first couple of years up here, where I wish I would just wake up and it all would have been a dream," Miller says in a voice redolent with contempt. "But I have come around to now believing that I'm glad I came. It's been a very instructional process.... I would not have wanted to go to my grave without seeing just how messed up this system is in Washington."

Like many who arrived before him, Miller acknowledges the difficulty of going from being a hands-on, snap-to-it executive to one of 100 senators slogging through a legislative body meant to run at a glacial pace. He recounted a conversation with fellow Democrat Joseph Biden of Delaware, who approached a glum-looking Miller not long into his term. "You have to go through three stages, I guess kind of like death," Miller says. "He said the first stage is you can't believe this place.... The second stage is anger. You want to change it. And then the third stage, finally, you get around to accept it. Well, I haven't been around long enough to accept it. I'm still in that anger stage Sen. Biden talked about."

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