Politics & Policy

Swell Zell

At a certain age, you gotta tell it like it is.

Just a couple of weeks ago most of the people I know in Manhattan or in Litchfield County where I spend my weekends were convinced that this fall’s election was between Bush and Anybody But Bush. And it was no contest. Anybody was in the lead and certainly deserved to win.

But everything was very different at a post-convention party last Sunday night. Exactly the same type of people who were so eager for and so sure of a Democratic victory before were starting to turn in another direction. Some had watched the convention, some had heard of the president’s eleven-point bounce in the polls. And with the steadiness of weather vanes, they now told me they really didn’t like Kerry very much, that Teresa really was going to be a big problem, and that the president wasn’t that bad after all. Beside they loved Rudy, loved Arnold , loved John McCain.

But they drew the line at Zell.

Thank goodness or we wouldn’t have had anything to argue about.

Miller was awful, a couple of the men declared, while the women around the table nodded in agreement. He was so angry, they said angrily, as if deeply felt, righteous indignation has no place in politics. These, by the way, are some of the same people who had packed the movie house in Danbury the night Fahrenheit 9/11 opened, and uncritically admired Michael Moore’s fraudulent polemic.

Now I admit, I too was a little taken aback at first by the unrelenting fire-and-brimstone quality of Zell’s keynote address. I don’t know many people who give compliments by quoting lines from “Amazing Grace.” But I liked it. Hey, I always had a soft spot for Savonarola. Somebody had to get up there and tell it like it is, calling John Kerry wrong, weak, and wobbly. And Zell, let’s admit it, is one tall, trim, passionate great-grandfather. And kind of cute at 72.

The guys at that Sunday-night dinner party who were so anti-Zell tend to have a very different life pattern. For example, Zell, I’ve learned, has been married to his wife Shirley for the past 54 years. That is something to admire in and of itself. Those guys are more likely to start new families at 54 (with new, young trophy wives) and are paying for SAT tutoring for their kids at age 72, not bouncing great-grandchildren on their knees.

Personally I love the colorful details in Zell’s vivid, small-town-boy-makes-good biography. How he was the son of a “single mother”–his father died when he was 17 days old. She hauled stones from a mountain creek to build the home that Zell lives in today in the mountain town of Young Harris, Ga. (population 604). Her handprints are still visible in the concrete. Mom was also an art teacher and one of the first female mayors in Georgia.

And how the Marine Corps changed his life when he was 21. He had dropped out of Emory University because he felt he just couldn’t hack it with those city slickers in Atlanta. After a night in a drunk tank and a morning in a church pew, he enlisted for three years. Zell wrote in his book Corps Values: Everything You Need to Know I Learned in the Marines: “In the twelve weeks of hell and transformation that were Marine Corps boot camp, I learned the values of achieving a successful life that have guided and sustained me…ever since. That weak, mixed-up lad never came back home; a strong disciplined man in olive drab did. And when that guy quit at Emory, it was the last time he quit at anything.”

Now I know the inside-the-Beltway reasons Zell has turned away from his fellow Democratic senators. When he was appointed by a Democratic governor to fill the seat of a deceased Republican senator, he declared he “would serve no political party but the 9.5 million Georgians.” His support of the president’s tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind Act, the war in Iraq, and the partial-birth-abortion ban represent the will of the majority of his constituents. But what drove him completely out of the Democratic caucus was the wrangling over the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. He felt Tom Daschle was more concerned with protecting the rights of the civil-service unions than protecting all Americans.

Zell’s critics have attacked him personally, have derided him for criticizing his colleagues, have sneered that he is trying to get in with new friends. Funny, I wrote a book about women’s media that criticized the actions and liberal politics of some of my journalistic colleagues, and I was attacked in exactly the same way. But I also know that at a certain stage and a certain age you just have to follow your conscience and speak up and tell it like it is. That’s what Zell did last Wednesday night. Maybe he was supposed to be playing to country folks in the red states; in any case, it doesn’t really matter how they reacted in Manhattan or in Litchfield County. This Big City Girl Who Goes Away on Weekends thinks Zell is just swell.

Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...

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