Wednesday morning at the Georgia State Capitol, Governor Nathan Deal and ex-Governor Sonny Perdue paid tribute to former Senator and Governor Zell Miller, who died last weekend at 86. The day before, tributes were paid to Miller by former Presidents Clinton, Carter and George W. Bush. It’s telling about the kind of vanishing breed of politician Miller was that the tributes were bipartisan, coming from three Republicans and two Democrats. Let me add mine, along with sympathy and prayers for his family.
Miller began as a fairly progressive (for the time) Democrat, but later said the party no longer had a place for a “conservative Democrat” like him. Ronald Reagan once said he didn’t leave the party, the party left him. Miller lived long enough to see the national Democratic Party leave him far behind as it hightailed it so far to the left that it nosedived into the Pacific Ocean.
But Miller refused to put party loyalty over principle. He introduced Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic Convention, then 12 years later spoke at the GOP Convention to endorse Bush over John Kerry. His independent streak earned him the derisive nickname “ZigZag Zell” from liberal critics, but he was just standing for what he thought was right, whether it was the official policy of the Democrats or the Republicans. When you stand firm while the culture lurches left and right around you, it can look like you’re zig-zagging to people with no bearings.
Through all the criticism, Miller maintained a great sense of humor. (Read these two comments that didn’t make it into his obituary.)
He also respected other people’s right to hold an opinion different from his. When former staffer Ed Kilgore panned his book that criticized the Democrats, “A National Party No More” (a prescient title, considering the islands of blue in a sea of red that the party later became) in an article sarcastically titled “Zell Bent,” Miller sent him a surprising response. He wrote: “Your review was fair and honest, and I remain your friend and admirer.” It was signed, “Zell Bent.”
In today’s political world, which seems to be composed of equal parts acrimony and blind partisanship, we could use more people like Zell Miller. Unfortunately, we now have one fewer.
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