Zell Miller 1932-2018
Sam Burnham, Curator
When I write about Georgia legends, I often find myself talking about the really big players in Georgia History. Oglethorpe, Tomochichi, Towns, Toombs, Stephens, Cobb, Colquitt, people who have counties named after them, statues at the capitol, museums in their honor. Today I'm writing about that same caliber of Georgian. He's a little more recent and might not have the accolades the others do but he probably will.
It really wasn't a big surprise to hear of the death of Governor Zell Miller. His family had announced a while back that he had retired completely from public life and would no longer make appearances. He was fighting Parkinson's Disease and that cruel affliction had progressed past the point of allowing Governor Miller to appear in public. This was a substantial loss for our state. It was a voice that spoke so eloquently, so powerfully, and sounded so much like our own.
Through Miller's leadership, Georgia made huge strides in education. He fought for teacher pay, school funding, and pushed for the Georgia Lottery which enabled the HOPE Scholarship which paid for the college educations of so many Georgia students.
There will be so many stories in the coming days that will recount his policies, his roles in government, and his speeches and writings. All of those are part of his legacy but there are things about Zell Miller that I don't want us to overlook. Most of his greatness comes from the fact that at no point in his career as Lt. Governor, Governor, or U.S. Senator did he ever quit being a man from Young Harris, Georgia. His very being, everything he did, was influenced by a small town in Appalachia and his raising there. Power and influence can steer people into weird places, places they would not ordinarily go, But all of those things just steered Zell back onto Highway 5, the road that now bears his name, and on home.
His political decisions were misunderstood by many. He got the nickname "Zig-Zag Zell" when people thought he was maneuvering through differences in policies, flipping from left to right and back, changing his mind at times. Looking back now it is clear. Zell Miller was a statesman, not a politician. He was wise and shrewd. Like almost every elected official in Georgia at that time, Miller was a Democrat. But unlike many in Georgia politics at the time, Miller was not going to kiss House Speaker Tom Murphy's ring. Far from simple zig-zagging was the simple truth - Zell Miller was going to do what Zell Miller was going to do. He did his own thinking. That's an underappreciated and underutilized virtue these days.
He had his famous speeches at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. There was his glorious potlikker letter of correction to the editor of the New York Times, and the duel statement when being interviewed by Chris Matthews. He grew to regret the statement given to Matthews. But thousands of Georgians still look on it with pride. A condescending journalist in New York City got the talking to so many of us would have liked to give out. That voice sounded so much like ours and said what we were thinking. Do not mistake our accent for ignorance. Show us some respect. We loved him for it.
That voice is gone now. Silenced by the inevitable passage of time and a cruel disease that afflicts so many people. The Chris Matthews types are safe again to hand out snide comments from the safe place behind a desk. We've got a different governor and will have yet another come January. The Wagon Train Trail has lost a hiker and we have lost a legend. His legacy will live on the the HOPE Scholarship and the Zell Miller Institute and its Foundation. We are a better state because he was part of it. May the same be said of each of us one day.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire