On Friday, former Senator Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, passed away at 89, surrounded by friends and family.
Miller had a long political career. He served in the Georgia State Senate and had two unsuccessful primary bids for the U.S. House of Representatives. He would serve four terms as lieutenant governor, making him the longest-serving LG in Georgia state history. Miller made an unsuccessful primary challenge to Senator Herman Talmadge in 1980, before being elected governor of Georgia in 1990; he would serve two terms. In 1984, he served as Georgia state chairman for the Mondale presidential campaign. After a period out of public life, Miller was appointed to the U.S. Senate in July 2000 to serve out the term of Republican Senator Paul Coverdell following his death. Miller would win a special election for that seat that November.
In 1991, Miller endorsed fellow southern governor Bill Clinton for president of the United States, and delivered the keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Garden. But, it’s because of his speech fourteen years later, also at Madison Square Garden, at the Republican National Convention, that I’m writing about him today.
Miller may have been a lifelong Democrat, but he often supported Republicans over members of his own party. He supported the Bush tax cuts, and despite having been a supporter of abortion rights as governor, he was a pro-life senator. He endorsed George W. Bush for reelection in 2004 and was chosen as the keynote speaker for the Republican convention. “I’ll be a Democrat ’til the day I die,” he said in response to criticism from fellow Democrats of his endorsement of George W. Bush for reelection to the presidency. “If they want to call me a leper or a traitor, that’s OK with me.” Miller had been unsure of whether he should give the speech, but his speech, delivered at Madison Square Garden on September 1, 2004, was certainly his most significant and memorable moment on the national stage. In his speech, he told the story of Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee in 1940. Miller credited Wilkie for giving President Roosevelt “the critical support he needed for a peacetime draft, an unpopular idea at the time.” Wilkie, Miller noted, “made it clear that he would rather lose the election than make national security a partisan campaign issue.”
Shortly before Wilkie died, he told a friend that if he could write his own epitaph and had to choose between “here lies a president” or “here lies one who contributed to saving freedom,” he would prefer the latter.
Where are such statesmen today?
Where is the bipartisanship in this country when we need it most?
Miller then delivered a blistering critique of John Kerry, the Vietnam war veteran turned protester, whose military service was a central theme of his campaign. Miller noted how Kerry “opposed the very weapons system that won the Cold War and that is now winning the War on Terror.” Miller then listed off various military weapons systems Kerry opposed during his Senate career that were crucial to American victories, such as the B-1 bomber, the B-2 bomber, the F-14A Tomcat, the Patriot Missile, the Apache helicopter, and several others. The list “sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security.” Miller then asked, “This is the man who wants to be the commander-in-chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?” He then skewered Kerry for blaming our military as a protester, and voting to weaken our military as a U.S. senator, comparing him to George W. Bush, “who wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip.”
It was a tremendous speech. Shortly afterward Miller spoke with MSNBC host Chris Matthews, where the two got into a combative exchange, culminating with Miller telling Matthews to “get out of my face! If you’re gonna ask me a question, step back and let me answer it!” before telling him: “I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.”
Zell Miller was a Democrat who didn’t let party affiliation get in the way of supporting what he believed to be right for this country. In his 2003 book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat, he wrote about the slate of Democratic candidates for president, “I fear some of the Democratic presidential candidates are treading on very dangerous ground for the party, and, more important, for the country.”
How right he was: four years later, his party nominated Barack Obama. Only one prominent Democrat had the courage to speak out against this radical newcomer: Senator Joe Lieberman. Eight years earlier, in 2000, Lieberman was the Democratic nominee for vice president, but he would speak at the Republican National Convention that year, having endorsed Senator John McCain over Senator Barack Obama. Lieberman noted Obama’s inexperience, his partisan record, and his inability to do the right thing in the face of public opposition—such as his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq. “Eloquence is no substitute for a record — not in these tough times.”
During Obama’s presidency, Zell Miller’s party continued its radical leftward shift. His party, which once supported border security and the rule of law, has become the party of open borders and sanctuary cities. Democrats today are a far cry from the likes of John F. Kennedy, who cut taxes and fought communism. Democrats today were unified in their opposition to President Trump’s tax cuts and scoff at the positive impact those tax cuts have had on the very people they claim to represent. The Obama administration allowed Russia to take control of 20 percent of America’s uranium mining capabilities, and their nuclear deal with Iran not only gave the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars, but also does nothing to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons. Democrat opposition to these and other actions were virtually nonexistent. Where are the statesman of the Democratic Party that Miller asked about in his speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention? Sadly, such statesmen in the Democratic Party are just as rare as they were when Miller spoke those blistering words fourteen years ago, if not rarer.
Zell Miller lived and died a Democrat. In addition to mourning this great patriot, we should mourn what has happened to his party.