Politics & Policy

Raising Zell

"The Democratic tent has shrunk to the size of a dunce cap."

Tonight won’t be the first time Senator Zell Miller of Georgia addresses a political convention in New York City. A dozen years ago, when he was governor, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic assembly nominating Bill Clinton for president. As a senator, however, he has been one of President Bush’s strongest supporters and the leading member of a group called Democrats for Bush. He is also the author of a best-selling book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, in which he shares his views on politics in the colorful language that has made him one of Washington’s best interviews. (Sample from the book: “Democrats have never seen a snail darter they didn’t want to protect, but sometimes I think the one endangered species they don’t want to save is the southern conservative Democrat.”)

Last week, he spoke with NRO from his home in Young Harris, Ga., right after he finished walking his dog.

NRO: What are you going to speak about in New York?

MILLER: I continue to work on speeches until I’m walking up to the podium. I’m going to talk about what a man who has never voted for a Republican ever is doing at a Republican convention. This November, when I vote for President Bush, it will be the first time I ever vote for a Republican. I’ve voted for 13 Democratic presidential candidates and hundreds of state and local Democratic candidates. I’m going to talk about why I’m voting for a Republican now. I’ll probably speak for 15 or 20 minutes.

NRO: Was there a specific moment when you realized that you wanted to support the president this year?

MILLER: After 9/11. It changed everything in politics. It changed my life. If changed my children and grandchildren’s lives. Whoever is president for the next four years is very important. You’ve got to understand that since we were governors together, I’ve respected and admired George Bush. I’ve seen him become a strong commander-in-chief. We’re safer today because he’s president.

NRO: You’re a retired Marine. What do you make of the Swift Boat veterans criticizing John Kerry?

MILLER: All men on both sides of this are combat veterans. They’re warfighters. I respect that. I was not a warfighter myself. I’m not going to question either side. The fact is Senator Kerry made his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his campaign. He knocked the scab off Vietnam again. I may have a minority view on this, but I believe Kerry would like to have everyone talking about his war record rather than his Senate record. We can go back and forth on the war record. There’s no going back and forth on his Senate record: It’s liberal.

NRO: In your book, you write, “National Democratic leaders are as nervous as a long-tailed cat around a rocking chair when they travel south.” Does the vice-presidential nomination of North Carolina senator John Edwards mean the Democrats intend to compete in the South?

MILLER: John Edwards doesn’t have anything to do with Democrats carrying the South. He’s an articulate spokesman and the no. 2 guy from the Democratic primaries. But southerners won’t vote because of a zip code or an accent. They’ll vote based on where candidates stand on the issues. A lot has been made out of me voting with Republicans in the Senate. I haven’t voted for a party; I’ve voted for a political philosophy, a conservative position. I like to say it’s not whose team you’re on, it’s whose side you’re on. Edwards is friendly and has great political skills. But he’s wrong on the issues, badly wrong. I’m surprised he wound up so far on the left. He got bit pretty early by the presidential bug, and you have to go as far left as you possibly can to win in Iowa and New Hampshire.

NRO: Why aren’t there more Zell Millers in the Democratic party?

MILLER: The Democratic tent has shrunk to the size of a dunce cap. There’s no room for conservatives like me. We used to have moderates and conservatives in the party. Then they ran us all out.

NRO: Have you talked to Bill Clinton recently?

MILLER: I haven’t talked to him in some time. In 1992, I thought he was the candidate we were looking for. He campaigned to end welfare as we know it and to be tough on crime. Then he governed another way.

NRO: Why don’t you just switch parties?

MILLER: I will always remain a Democrat. I’ll meet my Maker as a Democrat.

NRO: If you were a younger man, would you consider switching?

MILLER: If I were a younger man, I’d think about a lot of things.

NRO: You were very close of Max Cleland in the Senate, and today he’s a big supporter of John Kerry.

MILLER: I campaigned for Max Cleland and cut ads for him in 2002. The reason he was defeated was because he went along with the liberal Daschle Democrats. You can’t vote with them 80 percent of the time and expect to be elected in Georgia. The straw that broke the camel’s back was homeland security.

NRO: What do you think of the negative ads that were run against Cleland?

MILLER: I would prefer that they had not run. But too much is made of the ads. They did not defeat Cleland. He lost because of the Daschle Democrats. Georgia is pro-military and pro-defense. Cleland ought to be the perfect candidate for Georgia, except that his voting record defeated him.

NRO: How is Saxby Chambliss, the Republican who beat Cleland, doing as a senator?

MILLER: Saxby will make a very good U.S. senator.

NRO: Cynthia McKinney, the former congresswoman, has reemerged in Georgia as the Democratic nominee in Georgia’ 4th congressional district.

MILLER: Yes, she has.

NRO: Any thoughts on that?

MILLER: They’re not printable.

NRO: Who’s your congressman in north Georgia?

MILLER: Charles Norwood.

NRO: He’s a Republican. Are you going to vote for him this year?

MILLER: I like Charles Norwood very much.

NRO: Who’s his opponent?

MILLER: I don’t know.

NRO: So are you going to support Norwood?

MILLER: He’s a very fine candidate. I liked Charles Norwood very much.

NRO: You’re a big baseball fan. How are the Atlanta Braves doing?

MILLER: The Braves are doing good, but the St. Louis Cardinals are the best team in baseball right now. The Braves will have to go through the Cardinals if they’re going to play in the World Series. The Braves’ great strength is they have the best manager in baseball, Bobby Cox. His team didn’t look good in the early part of the season on paper, and now they look great, even with Chipper Jones struggling. The Braves could use some help with middle relief.

NRO: Who is your favorite player on the Braves?

MILLER: John Smoltz. I like him a lot. He’s a great pitcher, a great athlete, and a good person.

NRO: Who will win the World Series this year?

MILLER: Either the Cardinals or the Yankees.

NRO: Who will win the presidential election?

MILLER: Bush is going to win and it will be wider than we think right now. As more and more people turn on this election, George W. Bush is going to look better and better and his opponent is going to look weaker and weaker. Who is it we feel more secure with in the White House? The answer to that is President Bush. I have never been more proud to support a president. I admire his leadership and character. I’m glad to have lived long enough to vote for a person like him.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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