OPINION: Still mad, bad, zig-zag Zell


“Yeah he’s bad, mad Zig-Zag Zell, Mountain Man with a Rebel yell! Badder than Speaker Tom, and meaner than a Junkyard Dawg!,” lyrical parody of “Bad, Bad LeRoy Brown,” poking fun at then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller in 1989 at the Georgia Press Association’s Cracker Crumble.

Georgia’s longest serving lieutenant governor, two-term governor, father of the HOPE Scholarship and on the short list of Georgians who have served as governor and U.S. Senator, Zell Bryant Miller is one of a kind. The former Marine, history professor and scholar, sometime poet, lyricist and country music fan is doggedly loyal, profoundly stubborn and possesses an unmatched internal weather vane for sensing shifting political winds.

In 1990, after 16 years as lieutenant governor, Miller bested a strong Democratic field of candidates for governor, including Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, state house appropriations committee chairman Bubba McDonald and state Sen. Roy Barnes. After besting Young in the primary runoff, Miller won a lopsided victory that fall over State House minority leader Johnny Isakson. Miller’s second term reelection win was a squeaker, after he incorrectly read Georgian’s desire to remove the stars and bars of the Confederacy from the state flag. 

The summer of 2000 brought the tragic and untimely death of U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell due to a brain hemorrhage. Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes would name a temporary successor, followed by a special election to fill the four years remaining in the unexpired term. Barnes appointed Miller as interim senator. A short special election campaign followed, and Miller promised to serve in the spirit of Coverdell, the Republican he was seeking to replace. At the time few knew how true those words would be. Miller easily trounced former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, a tired retread GOP standard bearer, and took his seat in the Senate joining fellow Democrat, Sen. Max Cleland.
Miller found a highly polarized Senate and Capitol Hill much more intractable and fractious than his worst days tussling with Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy in the Georgia General Assembly.

The nation would soon experience the devastating trauma of 9/11, and Sen. Miller was inspired by the response and strong leadership of another former governor, now President George W. Bush. Despite his stinging criticism of Bush’s father, and his nomination of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton as the Democrat’s choice for president in 1992, Bush Jr. and Miller became fast and lasting friends.

Bush selected Miller, a Democrat, to give the nomination speech for his re-election at the GOP Convention in 2004. After a memorable and humorous speech, firing some devastating shots at the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Miller had a contentious live interview on MSNBC with host Chris Matthews. Loud noise in the convention hall and Matthews irritating style of interrupting his own guests before they can answer questions stoked Miller into all but challenging Matthews to a duel. It was great political theater.

Miller finished Coverdell’s term, true to his word, voting frequently as Coverdell would have most likely voted himself, and in late 2004, he returned to his North Georgia mountain home.
Since then he has largely only returned to the public eye to periodically endorse or support GOP candidates. 

When his former opponent, Isakson ran for the U.S. Senate to succeed him, Miller graciously offered his support, as well as the bulk of his senior staff, still running Isakson’s office to this day. Miller resurfaced last year to pay homage to the 20th anniversary of his beloved HOPE scholarship. And now, Miller has resurfaced again with a cane and a slight pause in his step as well as a return to his old Marine Corps flat-top. 

Miller has his true-blue loyalty streak on display, as well as his lifelong Democratic roots, by endorsing the U.S. Senate candidacy of nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn (also the daughter of his longtime colleague and ally, former Sen. Sam Nunn). But Miller is sticking with GOP incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal, a fellow North Georgian, and whom Miller had served with in the Georgia State Senate, over Democrat Jason Carter in the governor’s race.

So, in 2014, Miller is advocating a path taken by an increasing number of Georgians, in voting a split ticket, and putting more stock in the individual candidate than the political parties which back them. Whether I agree with his endorsements or not, I can’t help but think my friend and mentor, Zig-Zag Zell is getting out front in the right direction, all over again.
Give’em hell, Zell.

Bill Crane also serves as a political analyst and commentator for Channel 2’s Action News, WSB-AM News/Talk 750 and now 95.5 FM, as well as a columnist for The Champion, Champion Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can reach him or comment on a column at billcrane@earthlink.net. 


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