- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

Sen. Zell Miller doesn’t have many bridges to today’s Democratic Party left to burn.

Whatever bridges remain are crumbling as the party’s national leaders — specifically, its nine candidates for president — read the Georgia Democrat’s blunt and often-scathing new book, “A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat.”

“They have managed to take the main plank of the McGovern race, antiwar, and the main plank in the Mondale race, raising taxes, and put them together,” Mr. Miller said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times to mark the book’s release tomorrow. “How dumb can you get?”

Mr. Miller revealed in the interview that he will buck his party and its leftward lurch next year by casting his ballot for President Bush, which would be the first time a Republican ever won his vote for president.

None of the Democrats in the running appeals to Mr. Miller, governor of Georgia for eight years and lieutenant governor for 16. And he doesn’t think they can win the trust of the kind of Southern Democratic voters he grew up with in and around the Depression-era mountain town of Young Harris, Ga., where he was “born a Democrat” and reared by his mother, a penniless artist and future mayor, after his father died when he was 17 days old.

In the interview, as in his book, the senator reserved particularly harsh words for apparent front-runner Howard Dean.

“Howard Dean needs to take a little anger-management course,” Mr. Miller said of the former Vermont governor. “But he also needs to take a crash course on the history of freedom. I don’t think he has a clue where it came from.

“If he had been living that night in April of 1775, when Paul Revere came riding by shouting ‘The British are coming, the British are coming,’ Howard Dean would have yelled out his window, ‘Shut up, I’m trying to get some sleep.’”

Mr. Miller was appointed to the Senate seat left open when Republican Paul Coverdell died in July 2000. He won an election that November to serve out the rest of Mr. Coverdell’s term, which ends next year.

A 71-year-old former Marine, Mr. Miller is the sort who keeps his powder dry until he’s ready to shoot. One reporter recalls watching as another reporter asked Mr. Miller a question during his first days in the Senate. He politely declined: He didn’t want to talk to the press until he had been around for a while and understood the place.

Mr. Miller’s book is not the typical Washington tell-all. It doesn’t recount many closed-door conversations or detail Republicans’ overtures to him to switch parties. It is part autobiography, part lecture and part guide to how his beloved party can regain its national footing, peppered throughout with homespun witticisms. (“At my age, I don’t even buy green bananas,” he said in the interview.)

The 2002 elections persuaded him to write the book, Mr. Miller said, after voters judged “this dumb choice by the Democratic leadership of putting collective bargaining ahead of homeland security” and Democrats lost control of the Senate.

“I came up here expecting to be pretty much a traditional Democrat,” he said. “But the traditional roots of the Democratic Party are not raising taxes, class warfare, extreme partisanship.”

Mr. Miller sat for the interview in his office last Tuesday, when almost every other Senate Democrat was in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room, just off the Senate floor, for the weekly lunch at which they hash out caucus positions.

But Mr. Miller, who grew increasingly disgusted by colleagues’ willingness to be led by liberal special-interest groups, hasn’t been to one of the lunches in a year.

He recalls how Sen. Charles S. Robb, Virginia Democrat, was cheered at a caucus lunch in the summer of 2000 for sticking by a party position, despite being in “the race of his life” against Republican challenger George Allen.

“They were giving him this big round of applause for being so brave,” Mr. Miller said of Mr. Robb. “And it crossed my mind, ‘Don’t you know that you’re going to beat this man?’ Right then and there, I began to question what kind of reasoning is going on here.

“I can’t tell somebody from Massachusetts or California or Minnesota how to run a race, but I do know something about Southern politics.”

Mr. Allen defeated Mr. Robb in a contest that was critical to Republicans, allowing them to keep 50 seats in the Senate and preserve a majority with Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote.

Months later, Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent, giving Democrats the majority by one seat. Republican leaders quickly tried to entice Mr. Miller to switch parties or go independent, he writes, by offering a “historic” opportunity for a freshman senator.

But he refused. Unlike many Democrats-turned-Republicans who say the Democratic Party left them, Mr. Miller said in the interview that he sees it as his party having been invaded by squatters.

“I compare it to living in this old house, where I have lived all of my life,” he said, “where it’s drafty and hard to heat, the plumbing won’t work, the commodes won’t flush, and some strangers have moved in down there in my basement and I don’t know who they are and I don’t know how to get them out.

“But I haven’t got long to live here, and it’s home, it’s always been home and I have a lot of bittersweet memories of it.

“I know that’s hard to understand … but it makes sense to me, and it makes sense to my family, and it makes sense to my neighbors, and that’s all that really matters.”

So why vote for Mr. Bush next year?

“I’ve thought about this a lot. I think the next five years are going to be crucial in deciding what kind of world my grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in,” Mr. Miller said. “I can’t leave that crucial decision to any of these Democrats who are running.

“That does not mean I’m going to become a Republican. It just means in 2004, this Democrat’s going to vote for George Bush.”

That’ll be a big enough change, Mr. Miller said.

“I’ve held elected office now in six different decades. I first voted for a president in 1952, Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower, and I’ve voted for a Democrat every four years since then,” he said.

Mr. Miller does see national Democrats who he thinks could reclaim both the South and the White House, among them Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana; former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia; and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.

Mr. Miller, who announced early this year that he will not seek re-election in 2004, says he will return home to Young Harris, Ga., and resume teaching.

“It’ll be pretty hard for me to stay out of politics, but I certainly don’t have any intention of being in politics,” Mr. Miller said.

He pointed to a copy of his new book on his desk.

“This was sort of my last whack upside the head on how I thought this party had gotten into the shape it’s gotten in, and what it ought to do. I don’t know that I can add much more to this. I don’t know that Democrats will even listen to this, much less anything else I have to say.”

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