2018-03-28 / Editorials

‘Zig Zag Zell’

Other Voices
Mitch Clarke

I was flying in a Georgia State Patrol helicopter with then- Gov. Zell Miller and Macon Mayor Tommy Olmstead, surveying a city flooded by waters from the Ocmulgee River in 1994. The two men were talking about how the state could help the city and I, a young political reporter for the Macon newspaper, got to go along for the ride.

After we got safely back to the ground, I had a chance to interview Miller. It wasn’t the first time. His tenure as governor matched up nicely with my time as a political reporter, so we had many opportunities to talk.

Often, an interview with Miller would be a sparring match. I remember one interview with him, also in Macon when he was attempting to change the Georgia state flag and there were those who wished him tarred and feathered. The interview was contentious, to say the least. I’d have been safer trying to tame a lion.

But back at the airport, after a natural disaster, his famous temper was in check. As the interview ended and I walked with him back to the helicopter that would ferry him back to the Capitol, we chatted. I asked him if he got to go home to Young Harris much.

“Not as often as I’d like,” he said. “Not nearly as often as I’d like.”

Zell Miller was a maverick in Georgia politics. His legacy was cemented with the passage of the Georgia Lottery, which created the HOPE Scholarship that has sent millions of Georgia students to college tuition-free. The victory came even as some of his staunchest political allies and members of his church told him not to bring gambling to Georgia.

But to really understand Miller, you must understand his mountain roots. He was born during the Great Depression and his father died before the infant Miller was even a month old. He loved to tell the story of how his mother, his beloved Birdie, built the stone house in which they lived by dragging rocks up from a nearby creek. His love of Young Harris and the Georgia mountains became an important part of the Miller persona and were staples of his political speeches.

When he left the governor’s office, he had an unheard-of 85 percent approval rating. Long a champion of public education, Miller had not only created the lottery funded HOPE, but a burgeoning pre-K program, also funded by the lottery. He raised teacher salaries.

He was stuck with the nickname “Zig Zag Zell” in the 1980s. But I’ve come to admire him for his changing positions. Circumstances change. People evolve. New ideas emerge. Zell Miller didn’t tow a party line. I wish we had a few more politicians like him today.

In 2004, he broke rank with the Democratic Party, endorsed George Bush and was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. Although he never left the Democratic Party, he repeatedly called on the party to change its message because he said it no longer related to Americans.

“That pack of beagles hasn’t caught a rabbit in the South or Midwest in years,” he wrote just days after the 2004 election.

There’s more to the story of our conversation at the helicopter that day in 1994. Miller told me about a favorite saying his mother had about Young Harris: “From here, you can get anywhere in the world.”

“Do you think she ever envisioned you in the Governor’s Mansion?” I asked.

He thought about it a moment.

“Yes, I suspect maybe she did.”

Mitch Clarke, a native of Blakely, is the editor of AccessWDUN. com in Gainesville. He can be contacted at mitch.clarke@gmail.com. Read previous columns at www.accesswdun.com/ blog/mitch.

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