I didn’t know until I saw replays on television that Zell Miller looked angry during his convention speech–like a Baptist preacher going after flagrant sins. From where I sat in Madison Square Garden, Miller looked like he was having a grand old time, getting something big off his chest with as much zest, gusto, and good ol’ Baptist invective as he could.
People all around the country reacted to Zell as I did. My sister, who was in Cincinnati at a six-week consultation of nuclear engineers and other technicians from all over the country, told me the next morning that all anybody could talk about in the usually silent and grumpy early-morning breakfast room was Zell Miller. They loved the speech. Some were former Democrats, some were Republicans angry at Bush for one reason or another (the war, the spending, etc.), but Miller was speaking for many of them when he explained why he did not want to vote for this Democrat. My sister was the co-chair of Jimmy Carter’s winning campaign in Michigan in 1976, and Zell spoke for her, too.
To quibble over whether Zell was right on this or that point, or as fair and balanced as the reporters of the Associated Press, or as evenhanded as Joe Klein, is to miss the point when listening to a Baptist sermon, rendered by a Southern populist who relishes his heritage. He has the obligation of fitting into a literary form, as demanding in its way as a sonnet. His task is to penetrate through the details, fire like a laser straight into the heart, spear the essential sin and betrayal thriving there, and explode the grip of their tentacles. His task is to lead the sinner, with the light of that explosion, to mend his ways.
Zell Miller nailed the political correctness of the little liberal in the heart of all of us (driven into us by the monolithic liberal media of the last generation)–the political correctness that leads us to be ashamed to speak forthrightly about good and evil, ashamed to face the desperate need to rally to the defense of our country against one of the worst evils to ever threaten it.
The left wing of the Democratic party doesn’t like either the war on terror or the war in Iraq, and refuses to see the vividly clear connection between the two. The left wing wants to change the subject to domestic policy, and even that is absurdly characterized by them. The left wing wants to forget its own wartime heroes Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy–”bear any burden, meet any hardship.”
Preacher Zell reminded us of what Democrats of his age, and ours, once used to stand for.
Zell Miller took my breath away. He laid out bare the essential point of the last 35 years, ever since the call for surrender in Vietnam. John Kerry told the U.S. Senate that not more than 2000 or 3000 Vietnamese would have to flee from the democratic [i.e, Communist] forces leading the Vietnamese revolution. Hanoi and the Viet Cong were not our enemy, he said. We are the evil ones.
That was the exact point on which the great tradition of the Democratic party was destroyed from within. It was destroyed by leading Democrats of the left and by the educated class into whose hands the party’s leadership increasingly fell. It became the new party of the rich and the movie-actor/professor/journalist axis, claiming to speak for the poor: the frauds.
Well, a lot of Democrats were from the families of poor whites, and whatever our education we did not want to abandon our families. In fact, we saw in them a lot more wisdom than we found on the campuses. Especially on the question of what is and is not a threat to the survival of this marvelous country of ours–its decency, its honor, its goodness–Zell Miller speaks for us.
As I listened to Miller in the Garden that night, I asked myself, how can the Democrats reply to this? It is so manifestly true. They are not the war leaders Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy were. They are not the party I still love and admire, and wish existed still.
“Grumpy old man,” is what they came up with. “Angry,” “exaggerated” (wow, is that to miss the point of this literary genre), and then, as in Joe Klein, “filled with hate.” No, Joe, it wasn’t hate, it was disdain, and if you felt it coming down on you, look to where you stand and how you think. From where I sit, I think it fits you. I could be wrong about that–that’s up to you to decide. But your reaction is giving you away, more than you imagine. And, you know, Zell began with his love for his family, and his love for his country, and his love for the Democratic party we all used to know, and his love for a bygone era of bipartisanship in times of danger and war. Zell’s speech was all about love, disappointed love, and if you missed that you did not get the passion, didn’t get it at all.
It is the Democrats who have called their own passion this year hate, and argued publicly that hate is a suitable and defensible passion to have toward George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Zell began by pointing that out. Those of us born Democrats in the years of FDR don’t remember Democrats who hated, as this year’s Democrats do. Democrats used to be the cheerful party, the “happy days are here again” party. We don’t remember obsessive hatred. We used to poke fun at the opposition, not hate them. We felt a little sorry for them. (Well, hating Nixon at least a little bit was probably approved of, but mocking him was more fun.)
George Bush is going to win a surprising share of Democratic votes this year. The firemen’s and policemen’s vote. The Nascar vote. The motorcycle vote. All of them, Zell’s Angels.
George Bush, taking abuse few presidents have ever had to bear, is unmoved and upright and good-humored and generous of spirit (honoring Senator Kerry’s valor in Vietnam, for instance; telephoning Bill Clinton in the hospital; honoring Ted Kennedy at Texas A&M; gently and grandly praising the Clintons in the White House as their portraits were unveiled). Ex-Democrats admire both his steadiness and his thoughtful kindness.
Let me close by mentioning one other perception I took away from my exciting four days of stirring speeches from truly distinguished leaders: Among all of them, the greatest of all and the most reliable, focused, disciplined, plain-speaking, and trustworthy was our president. He stood with some great ones, but his moral stature rose at least a shoulder’s height above all the others. He stood the steadiest of all.
–Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.