The Blog

It Feels Like the First Time

How Senator Zell Miller (D-Georgia) found himself at a Republican convention for the first time in his life.

12:00 AM, Aug 30, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

New York

THE ALLIANCE between President Bush and Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia began this way: After Bush was declared winner of the 2000 presidential race, but before he was inaugurated, he invited Miller to confer with him in Austin, Texas. Officially Bush was still Texas governor. But he wanted to talk to Miller about education, a national issue in which they had a mutual interest. Earlier, as Georgia governor, Miller had famously instituted Hope Scholarships that guaranteed every Georgia high school with a B average or better a free college education.

As he was leaving the governor's mansion in Austin, Miller told Bush he'd be willing to sponsor the No Child Left Behind education-reform bill. And almost in passing, Miller told Bush: "I agree with you about a lot of things. I support your tax cuts, too." Several days later, Miller heard from then-Senator Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, who asked him co-sponsor the tax bill. Miller agreed.

And so a friendship, both political and personal, was born. It's a friendship that led to Miller's endorsement of Bush for reelection months ago and to his appearance to deliver the keynote address at the Republican national convention here. It's the first Republican convention Miller has ever attended. In fact, he's never voted for a Republican for any office at any time--until now.

Miller knew Bush slightly before the Austin meeting. They had been governors at the same time. And he'd heard good things about Bush from Lt. Governor Bob Bullock of Texas, a Democrat. Bullock, Miller says, said Bush was "a person you could depend on."

Until the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Miller had never thought about endorsing Bush. But he was impressed by Bush's reaction to the attacks. "He grabbed terrorism by the throat," Miller told host Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday. This was in contrast to the "disappointment' Miller had felt over President Clinton's "holding back" after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of two American embassies in Africa in 1996, the killing of 19 American servicemen at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the attack on USS Cole in 2000.

Then came the Senate votes to create a new Homeland Security Department in the fall of 2002. Democrats opposed the Bush proposal for a new department, though it had been initially recommended by Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Miller said. He stopped attending meetings of the Senate Democratic caucus.

In 2003, Miller was visited by the top two officials of the Bush reelection campaign, Marc Racicot and Ken Mehlman. Miller knew Racicot because he had been governor of Montana when Miller was Georgia governor. Anyway, Miller said yes when asked if he would campaign for Bush. "I told them I'd do anything I could to help him get reelected," Miller said, including barnstorming with Bush. On Saturday, Miller will join Bush on the campaign trail. Miller is not seeking reelection to the Senate this fall.

There's one other factor in Miller's embrace of Bush: his growing disenchantment with the Democratic party. Miller calls himself a conservative Democrat. He says he was "smitten" in 1992 with Bill Clinton. Miller delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention that year. He said he expected Clinton, as president, to "lead the [Democratic] party back to the center. But that's not the way he governed."

In agreeing to be the Republican keynoter, Miller says his 1992 speech would be played back "over and over." Indeed, that has already begun. He's also been confronted with his praise of Democratic nominee John Kerry. That, Miller says, occurred before he learned about Kerry's 20-year record in the Senate.

"He's weak on defense," Miller said on Fox News Sunday. "He's not in the mainstream of the country. He's way to the left." So is the Democratic party, Miller insisted. "There's no room in the Democratic party for moderates and conservatives." Asked if there was at least one issue on which he agreed these days with Democrats, Miller couldn't think of one.

One more thing. Miller says he won't remain in Washington even if Bush wins a second term and offers him a top position, even if it's a cushy ambassadorship. "You couldn't hold a gun to my head and get me to be an ambassador," he said. And he seemed to mean it.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.