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An Open Letter To Sen. Zell Miller: What Happened?

Editor’s note: An edited version of this letter ran in Friday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dear Zell: Saw you on Fox last night endorsing George Bush and trashing the Democratic Party, and just had to write.

You know I have been a lifelong supporter of yours. I wrote my first campaign check to you when I was still in law school, admired you as you fought Herman Talmadge, worked with you on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign, and was never prouder to be a Georgia Democrat than when you gave the keynote address at the National Convention that nominated Bill Clinton.

After all, as governor you established the HOPE scholarship so that every hard-working Georgia student could go to college, and focused on the “kitchen table” issues that affected working families.

When people called you “Zig-Zag” Zell and said you had no fixed beliefs, I said your days damning the Civil Rights Act when you ran for Congress in 1964 and your years as Lester Maddox’s chief of staff were just a misspent youth. I pointed instead to your political courage in trying to take the Confederate battle emblem off the state flag, even though you bowed to political expediency and backed down from that fight.

Changing the flag may have cost Roy Barnes his job, but he left office with his character intact and his head high for standing for his beliefs regardless of the consequences.

As head of the Georgia Democratic Party, I pushed for your appointment to the Senate and chaired the meeting that put you on the ballot as our nominee. The party supported you as I and thousands of other Georgia Democrats worked to elect you. Together we raised every penny we could to help you and the entire ticket win election.

I didn’t hear a single complaint from you during that campaign about the Democratic Party.

I first became worried that you were bending your views to the political winds when you ducked the Democratic Convention that nominated Al Gore. You always had a “scheduling conflict” when asked to appear at his Georgia campaign events. I got a little more concerned when your first major vote in the Senate was to gut labor regulations that would protect injured workers. I did wonder if you’d spent too much time on the Southern Co. board and as a Philip Morris consultant when you worked against environmental and health regulations.

I held my tongue when you endorsed President Bush’s tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans, and when you voted against Democratic attempts to spread those tax cuts to the middle class. And just this month you were the only Democrat to favor the Bush plan to gut overtime protections for American workers — a measure that nine Republican Senators crossed the aisle to vote against.

Now, with the hot political wind blowing from conservative networks, talk radio and corporate boardrooms, when it’s become the fashion to bash the Democratic Party, you’ve joined in, writing a book betraying the people who stood behind every one of your campaigns — not party activists, but hard-working Georgia families. You cast stone after stone at Democrats. Your silly, petty and often personal attacks remind me of no one more than your old boss, Lester Maddox.

To add insult to injury, you flatter Sonny Perdue, who was elected governor by campaigning on the same symbol of hate you tried to remove from the flag, with an inscription that says Georgia is in good hands. Remember Zell, this is the same Sonny Perdue who proposed a $900 million tax increase on the middle class the first week he was in office. The same Sonny Perdue who is looking to cut off the HOPE scholarship to the B average student in two-thirds of the rural counties in Georgia, meaning they won’t go to college — a move that would not only deny many Georgians a better life than their parents but also tarnish the only legacy you have left.

And now you’re kicking off your book tour by endorsing George W. Bush.

I thought a genuine ex-Marine like you would see through the phony flyboy “made-for-television” carrier stunt, especially now that Bush is blaming the troops for mistakenly bragging about a “mission accomplished.”

I thought you would remember that Bush opposed creating a Homeland Security Department, until Karl Rove and polling told him he could shamelessly use the issue to question the patriotism of Senators like our friend Max Cleland, who, you’ll remember, left three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam.

I thought a man who claims to revere FDR like you, prides himself on being a penny pincher, and says he cares about kitchen table issues would see through Bush’s attempt to starve Social Security and Medicare by running up enormous deficits.

I thought the history professor in you would know that Republicans built their success in the South on appeals to race and that you would speak out as again this year, in Mississippi, Republicans campaign on the Confederate flag while George Bush stands by approving yet silent.

I even thought a man like you, who always rightly talks about how his widowed mother built her own home by hauling stones out of the local river, would insist that the Iraqi people contribute to the rebuilding of their own country. Instead, you voted last week, at President Bush’s insistence, against requiring Iraq to use its oil money to repay any of the $87 billion we’re spending on their country this year alone. I guess teaching W. a core value of helping those who help themselves wasn’t on your book tour.

I do know his corporate friends won’t have forgotten what you’ve done in your few years in the Senate. Zell, you’ll excuse me if I don’t buy your book. I’ll let the corporate directorships you’ll soon get fund your retirement. I’m betting you’ll hit the trifecta — Philip Morris, Southern Co. and soon Halliburton. And you’ll excuse me if I don’t follow your advice on my vote for president. I prefer a candidate who did his growing up in Vietnam, like Sen. John Kerry, rather than AWOL from the Air National Guard, like your friend George.

You once wrote a country song with a great line: “Every place I’ve ever been was on my way back home.” Looks like you’re on your way back home, Zell, back to the hateful rhetoric of the Lester Maddox days, with frequent well-paid stops along the way in corporate boardrooms. Too bad that’s the final legacy you’re leaving.

In your finest hour as governor, you said, “You cannot lead with a finger to the wind and an ear to the ground. It is an undignified position.” Only now, as you teeter with your hindquarters in the air, do I fully understand how right you were.

Very truly,

David Worley

David Worley, an Atlanta attorney, is the immediate past chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

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