Zell Miller: A Man Who Had All The Friends He Ever Needed

Zell Miller: A Man Who Had All The Friends He Ever Needed

Former Georgia Governor Zell Miller


I appreciate Phil Kent asking me to write about Zell Miller. So many people knew him so well that to have the chance to share “Miller Times” is a true privilege.

If you know names like Keith Mason, Gordon Giffin, Ed Sims, Rick Dent, Mary Beazley or Toni Brown (not to mention Joan Kirchner Carr or Steve Wrigley), then this piece is for you. You could add hundreds of names to that list and you would still be listing true friends of Zell Miller at one time or another and, in reality, forever.

Miller’s career veered from liberal to conservative. In between it had a strong twinge of populism. But, contrary to what to detractors would suggest, that was not because he zigged or zagged to meet political expedience. Instead, it was because Miller was truly evolving throughout his entire life. At heart he was an author constantly in search of what reflected those “Corps Values” he learned as a Marine and he set forth in one of his many books.

He could be feisty, wily, and even “a little bit crazy.” Those were his words, not mine. He once told me that part of the secret to success in politics was “to make people think you’re a little bit crazy.” I guess he felt comfortable saying that to me, knowing that most folks thought that I was as well.

He explained this by describing the time the Department of Transportation board didn’t want to name his man as its new commissioner. “I gathered them all out at the (governor’s) mansion, carried some rolled up sheets of paper in one of my hands, and told them I had the press gathered on the other side of the mansion. Then I added ‘You just don’t know what I will tell them, because I’m a little bit crazy.’” Miller left the board members to discuss the matter. They decided he was, and that they needed to appoint his man. No one ever knew what was on those pieces of paper. Certainly not the fact that they were blank! As for the feisty part, well some of his tirades remain Gold Dome legend.

The best one was when a traditional prank was played on one of my then-fellow House members who had been critical of one of his major legislative initiatives. Given a bogus note delivered by a page, the hapless legislator thought he had been summoned to the governor’s office. No one ever thought he would make it past Miller’s devoted guard of Mary Beazley and Toni Brown.

As luck would have it the legislator approached just as Miller was walking out. “Stop right there” the governor exclaimed. “I wouldn’t give you enough (a different word for urine) in my boot even if you needed it to put out a fire if your throat were on fire” Only Miller could come up with that!

But the feisty “Give ‘em hell Zell” almost always gave in to a person who forgave quickly, and he cared deeply about almost everyone he knew.

Even that famed “challenge to a duel” moment with Chris Matthews after Miller’s keynote at the 2004 Republican convention was not as it seemed. “I had been worked up to a frazzle,” he said. “They cut almost two minutes out of my time for the speech” which had Miller appearing more hard charging than he wanted and never being able to pause for applause from the audience. “Then they (his GOP convention handlers) took me from one place to another so fast that by the time I got to Matthews I was just ready to go off.”

And that’s where the rest of the story of Zell Miller picks up. His thoughtful, caring, and truly reflective nature.

Miller was down immediately after his appearance at the GOP convention. He felt he had let President George W. Bush down. He didn’t like being portrayed as a hotheaded person. That’s because, despite the flairs he used as part of his “little bit crazy” approach to politics, he was one of the most thoughtful and visionary men to ever hold public office.

Bush recognized that and, within a week after the convention, had the former governor and U.S. senator out barnstorming for him in swing states.

But let’s go back to the pivotal year of 1990. Miller had the courage and wisdom to push for a seemingly unpopular lottery to fund a novel concept of the HOPE Scholarship. Other candidates for governor danced around it. The result was a Miller victory and the single most successful boost to Georgia education in state history.

You see, in his heart Zell Miller was not just a politician, he was an author. A professor by trade. He loved history and words and thoughts. His numerous books each had a real story to tell. In the latter part of his second term as governor he moonlighted again as a writer, working on “Corps Values.” He was kind enough to share the galley copies with me and in talking about the book everything “Miller” became clear.

The values he espoused in the book were the essence of Zell– from “neatness” (he was always immaculately dressed) to “persistence” (he literally never let something he believed in go) to “loyalty.” And that’s where this story reaches its most important moment. Zell Miller was loyal. What’s that you say? He spoke at a GOP convention in 2004 as a Democratic senator?

Well yes. But he did so out of a loyalty to what he believed in as policy and even in doing so he refused to leave his Democratic Party.

Moreover, even to his longtime Democrat friends he remained a loyal and caring person. He never forgot the friends from the Democratic Party who helped him nor the Democratic governor who appointed him and who he once said was “the smartest politician going.”

And he never forgot his Republican friends either. He cherished his relationship with the man he defeated for governor in 1990, Johnny Isakson. He revered Joan Kirchner (Carr) who went from reporter who covered him, to press secretary and later chief of staff in his Senate office and now serves in that same position for Isakson.

The title of this piece references a man who had all the friends he ever needed. That begs one last story. After he had left the governor’s office I was talking casually on the phone with him one afternoon. In the conversation he was joking about a person who had called him wanting to introduce him to some big shot who “would be a great friend for him to know.” Miller retorted with a laugh: “I told him, I’ve got all the friends I need.” I agreed.

A year or so later he had been appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Roy Barnes and would be running for election. I jokingly reminded him of that statement. ”I never said that” he said again– with that Miller chuckle.

The fact is Zell Miller did have all the friends he needed.

He had a devoted lifetime partner (“the brains of the family,” he would say) in his wife and former Georgia First Lady Shirley Miller.

He had a loving family to whom he was deeply devoted.

He had Democrats, Republicans, the rich and the poor who counted him as their friend as well. Even journalists who jostled with him– such as Bill Shipp, the late Dick Pettys, Dick Williams and our own Phil Kent– counted him as friends, as did he.

So now presidents from both parties, leaders from across the nation and many Georgians say farewell to Zell Miller. A man who had all the friends he needed… and so much more.

Matt Towery is founder of InsiderAdvantage. He knew Zell Miller for many decades including in political campaigns and during Towery’s years in the Georgia House. In 1998, as a show of affection, Miller hosted a book signing for then-author Towery at the Governor’s Mansion. Towery now resides in Saint Petersburg and works with Hall, Booth, Smith.