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Speech to GOP Inspires 'Give Zell Hell' Party

Georgia Democrats share jeers, and a jilted feeling, after Miller's convention appearance.

September 03, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA, Ga. — The people who crowded Manuel's Tavern to watch Sen. Zell Miller deliver the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention behaved less like political activists than jilted lovers. Not content with groaning toward the television, they squeezed whoopee cushions. They shook their fists and sang, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" They made fun of his rural accent.

But behind the beer-fueled gaiety of the "Give Zell Hell" party was a sense of deep injury. For years, Miller was the most popular Democratic political figure in Georgia and his portrait hung behind the bar at Manuel's, Atlanta's unofficial party headquarters. Wednesday night, after a nation of strangers watched Zell Miller, old friends and one-time supporters moved Miller's portrait to one of the bar's dark corners.

"I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm hurt. I'm disappointed," said 51-year-old Ralph Hill, who attended the party. "There's something going on in his deep core. I don't know what it is. I don't know if he knows what it is. I do know his mother is spinning in her grave."

Miller's repudiation of the Democratic Party comes as no surprise to anyone in Georgia; since 2000, when Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to fill the seat of the late Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, he has sided with President Bush on a growing list of issues. Last year Miller criticized the party in his book "A National Party No More: the Conscience of a Conservative Democrat."

A day after the speech, though, many Georgians were still struck by its stern, admonishing tone. It was an old-fashioned stemwinder, jarring in an age when politicians are warned against openly displaying anger, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. But Bullock said there also might be Americans, Democrats and Republicans, who relate to Miller's tone of "righteous indignation."

"That anger seemed to resonate in the hall last night," he said. "The chattering classes don't think it is an appropriate emotion, but it does tap into what many women and men on the street may feel."

All morning Thursday, callers gushed over the speech to Neal Boortz, a libertarian talk radio host in Atlanta who said he was so transfixed by Miller's performance that he barely "drew three breaths the whole time." Miller drew still more attention as word filtered out about a heated exchange that took place after the speech, when he was interviewed by Chris Matthews on "Hardball." Toward the end of the interview, Miller lashed out at Matthews for interrupting him, and said, "I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel."

Both events impressed viewers. David Cone, 39, a finance executive at a downtown wholesale market, said Miller "told the truth from his heart," putting principle above party loyalty.

"He came across as a good Southern preacher. It was a fire-and-brimstone approach. But it was a good hit," said Cone, who was reading the 9/11 Commission Report during his lunch break. "I consider myself a Republican, but if Zell Miller were running for public office, I would vote for him."

Democratic party officials, meanwhile, hope Miller's speech will have the opposite effect, energizing their party loyalists and rousing a population of unregistered Democratic voters.

Atlanta businessman Kirk Dornbush, a fundraiser for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said he began calling Kerry supporters early Thursday, and met an outpouring of anger over the previous night's speech. By the time Miller had finished speaking, Dornbush said, "they wanted to rip the TV off the wall."

The next morning he made some follow-up calls.

"Three phone calls, $75,000. It was remarkable. People hate traitors," he said.

In Manuel's Tavern, conversations turned to the question of why Miller had turned so venomously against the Democrats -- a question that Bobby Kahn, chairman of the state Demo-cratic Party, called "the biggest mystery in Georgia politics of my lifetime."

Even as he attacks his party, Miller remains so popular among Georgians that politicians are hesitant to criticize him openly. A June poll by InsiderAdvantage shows him with an approval rating of 64%.

Over 16 years as lieutenant governor and eight years as governor, Miller developed a reputation as a contrarian, but generally moderate, politician.

Many in Manuel's had worked with Miller when he took a great political risk by trying to remove the Confederate Battle emblem from Georgia's state flag. Others recalled Miller as the creator of the HOPE Scholarship, a popular state lottery-funded program that was initially attacked by Republicans.

Some speculated that Miller felt insulted by fellow Democrats when he arrived in Washington as a freshman senator. Some wondered if aging had changed his temperament. Others repeated a theory that circulates in the Georgia Statehouse: That Zell Miller, a sickly man, is occasionally supplanted by his evil twin, Ezell. Behind the humor, for many, is a pained confusion.

"Zell has been a friend to many of us here," said Angelo Fuster, a Democratic political consultant who helped organize the event. "People who don't know Zell at all think the guy just changed his mind. People who knew him are a little bit hurt."

As the night wound down, the crowd flowed around Ralph Hill. "I'm glad I came here, because I know I'm not crazy," he said. "I'm not the only one saying, 'How the hell did this happen?' "

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