A Stateman's Courage (and How the Media Ignored It)

If conservatives and liberals got the same shake from the major media, Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) would be the toast of TV news, the darling of the elite newspapers, and the celebrated cover boy of every even marginally newsy magazine on the racks.

It is, in fact, not at all difficult to imagine how Miller would have been endlessly toasted and feted and profiled and praised had he been a lifelong Republican who, in a time of war, had been compelled by conscience to cross the aisle and support an incumbent Democratic president.

But Sen. Miller — a conservative Democrat who has endorsed President Bush — has not been treated like the second coming of John McCain circa 2000 or Jim Jeffords, 2001. Instead, the liberal press has treated Miller, at best, like a curiosity. More often, he has been depicted as an inexplicable turncoat.

Miller’s left-leaning critics in the media and the Democratic Party have tried out all sorts of explanations. Some have said he must crave attention. Others have said he is angling for a Bush appointment. Jimmy Carter, in a rambling letter to Miller, suggested his fellow Georgia Democrat must be chasing “a few moments of applause.”

But Miller’s would-be analysts are all wet. At 72 years old, the most popular Georgia politico of his time had nothing left to prove. He is now exiting public life, returning to the mountains he loves and the retirement he was happily enjoying before being appointed to the Senate after the untimely passing of Sen. Paul Coverdell.

Carter’s confusion notwithstanding, Zell Miller is no riddle, no enigma, no cipher. Again and again, he has explained the reasons for his disenchantment with his party and his support of Bush. He even wrote a book on the subject, published last year.

When he got to Washington in mid-2000, Miller was surprised by the extreme and petty partisanship of his Democratic leaders. Subsequently embittered by Bush’s electoral victory, many DC Democrats were disinclined to let the president name even his own cabinet. That grossly offended Miller’s basic sense of decency. Early on, he chose to give Bush’s nominees — and his proposals — a fair hearing.

Later, Miller was shocked by the attacks of Sept. 11 — and the subsequent failure of many Hill Democrats to rally around the president. Instead, Miller saw his legislative leaders make a sport of undercutting and second-guessing Bush’s every wartime effort, from the Patriot Act to Iraq.

In his GOP convention speech, Miller explained his basic foreign policy beef with his party leaders: “They don’t believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.” Miller thinks they are mistaken. And he’s right.

Say whatever else you will about him, but Zell Miller has two qualities that elite media types usually can’t get enough of.

First of all, Miller has never been afraid to own up to his mistakes. He has acknowledged several significant missteps, from opposing an early civil rights bill to supporting abortion a generation later. In his book, he calls the civil rights decision his most regrettable and explains how he became pro-life after the birth of his great-grandchildren.

Secondly, Miller has never been afraid to lead. He boldly led a 1993 charge to change Georgia’s polarizing state flag, and it nearly cost him reelection a year later. Still, it was the right thing to do, even if some Georgia Republicans, including this one, didn’t realize it at the time.

Miller also led on the state lottery, when it was far from a political slam-dunk. I have my own public policy reservations about the lottery, but Miller judged that Georgia needed more dollars for education and he put his political life on the line to bring lottery bucks to the classroom.

For Miller, the easier path this year would have been to vote his conscience and quietly retire. But the old Marine wouldn’t — or couldn’t — just fade away. Duty called, and Miller chose the more difficult path, one that took boldness and courage and a willingness to suffer the combined slings and arrows of small-minded scribblers, paid-for political hacks and a legion of onetime friends, including a failed president.

At the GOP convention, Miller invoked the memory of Wendell Willkie, who supported FDR’s pre-war initiatives in 1940, despite being the GOP nominee that year.

Where, Miller asked rhetorically, have such statesmen gone? For much of the national Democratic Party, it is an open question. Come January, however, there will be at least one such giant in the little mountain hamlet of Young Harris, Georgia, lifelong home of a towering Democratic patriot named Zell Miller.