Get ready for some more “Zell zingers” from the political convention in New York. But this time, a Bush will be the beneficiary, not the target.
Yes, the Zell Miller who Republicans tapped Thursday to deliver the keynote address for President Bush at their convention next month is the same one who lampooned Bush’s father 12 years earlier at the Democratic convention in the same New York arena.
In 1992, Miller was Georgia’s governor, famous for his Southern style and populist initiatives. Today, he’s a maverick senator months away from retirement — still a Democrat in name if not voting record.
With a recent best seller that details his political transformation, Miller’s national star is still bright, even in the twilight of his career. Republicans say he’s finally free to express his true views. Democrats say he’s a turncoat and opportunist.
“This is emblematic of what the Republicans are trying to do with their convention — namely mislead the American people,” said Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe. “Republicans claiming that Miller is a Democrat doesn’t make it true.”
In accepting the Republican Party’s offer to speak Sept. 1, the third day of the four-day convention, Miller, 72, called the president a “strong commander in chief who is guided by the right principles.”
That’s a far cry from his assessment of Bush’s father during the keynote speech for Bill Clinton.
“George Bush is a timid man who hears only the voices of caution and the status quo,” Miller said back then. “Let’s face facts: George Bush just doesn’t get it, he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t feel it, and he’s done nothing about it. That’s why we cannot afford four more years.”
That was just a sample of the “Zell zingers” peppered throughout the speech.
As for John Kerry, Miller has found kind words for Democratic presidential nominee, calling him “one of this nation’s authentic heroes” during the Georgia Democratic Party’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner three years ago. Kerry made a return trip to the gathering in April, cracking, “Back then, Zell Miller was a Democrat.”
Miller contends his views haven’t budged much but that the party he has called home all his life abandoned Southerners like him who care about tax cuts and military strength. He brushes aside suggestions that he should switch to the GOP, particularly this late in his career.
One topic where he has experienced a change of heart is civil rights. As a congressional candidate 40 years ago, Miller argued President Johnson was “a Southerner who sold his birthright for a mess of dark pottage” because of his support for the Civil Rights Act. Miller later disavowed those remarks, even leading an unsuccessful charge to take the Confederate emblem off the Georgia state flag.
Civil rights pioneer John Lewis, the dean of Georgia’s congressional delegation, recently called Miller’s decision to speak for Bush “a shame and a disgrace.” Lewis quipped that, this time, Miller was the one selling his soul for pottage.
Miller, who was appointed and then elected in 2000 to fill the term of the late Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, isn’t seeking re-election when the term ends in January. He doesn’t caucus with his party, never meets with lobbyists and hasn’t had a fund-raiser since joining the Senate.
His typical day with Congress in session involves showing up for votes, then going home to his wife, Shirley. Often, he doesn’t even show up for votes.
“Because frankly, I’d rather spend those hours with Shirley than with anyone else,” Miller said. “I don’t know how many hours or days I’ve got to spend with her, and I wasted a lot of that time in my youth out chasing votes.”
In recent months, Miller has attached his name mostly to longshot legislation. He has proposed measures to get rid of Senate filibusters and prohibit court rulings that infringe on a public acknowledgment of God.
The former college history professor, who would like return to that line of work next year, says he is under no illusion that Congress will rush to pass such things. However, he explains the next time one of his students asks him why he didn’t enact what he advocates, Miller wants to be able to say he tried.
“There will be that footnote in there that this guy, Miller, did point this out back there in 2004,” Miller said. “It’s part of the ’To thine own self be true.”’