The 'Perfesser' and the 20th Century
Zell Miller Makes Sense of It
By Don Schanche Jr.
Before he was elected governor of Georgia, Zell Miller was a professor of history. The tough-minded, canny politician and ex-Marine who takes pride in his hillbilly roots is also known to take the long-term view of things. In his University of Georgia master's thesis on Depression-era Gov. E.D. Rivers, Miller wrote, "History, not a man's contemporaries, is the only just judge of a man's real worth."
He kept that perspective in mind, even while surviving and prevailing amid the daily intrigue, political knifings and all-out mayhem in which Georgia's public policy is forged under the gold-domed Capitol in Atlanta.
After decades of waiting in the wings as an aspiring Alpha male in the political pack, Miller ascended to the governorship in 1990 with a heavy backlog of history-making policy changes in mind. In short order he led the way for a willing public to accept a state lottery, which has arguably done more to open education opportunities in Georgia than any single change since school desegregation in Brown vs. the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education. He was the first governor to implement a systematic policy to preserve Georgia's wild areas as public lands. He led a brave but doomed charge to remove the old Rebel Saint Andrews Cross from the state flag. And despite his inexplicably retrogressive prison policy, which erased decades of hard-won penal reform and replaced it with a repressive system dominated by political hacks, Miller's record is likely to survive as one of Georgia's most progressive administrations of the 20th century.
This year, having served his constitutional limit of two terms as Georgia's chief executive, he quit governing and went back to teaching. He's content to leave the future to his successor, Roy Barnes, a moderately progressive Democrat whose platform included a pledge to be a lot like Zell.
``I think it would be presumptuous for me, telling Roy and the Legislature what they ought to be doing," the 67-year-old retired governor insisted.
But on the eve of the new millennium, the "perfesser," as some friends call him, took a few moments in his Young Harris home to reflect on history, the South and the meaning of what he has seen in his lifetime.
``I have seen, in my lifetime, the South go from, as Roosevelt put it, the nation's number-one economic problem that one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-fed to the fastest-growing area in the country. If you were to take the South and separate it from the nation (I'm not advocating that we tried that once) it now has by itself the fifth largest economy in the world. It is a job-creating machine.
``And why has that happened? In my opinion, there are two or three reasons. One was the invention of the air conditioner. That is very important. You would not have these people scurrying to Atlanta and Charlotte and other places in droves to work in those high-rise towers if you didn't have air conditioning.
"Then, the South that was "Gone With The Wind" was shackled by segregation and ignorance. The Civil Rights movement brought the South really into the rest of the nation. I think that was what Lyndon Johnson wanted to do. He wanted to bring his South into the rest of the nation. He also recognized what he was doing politically that he was turning the South over to the Republicans for a generation. But he did bring the South back into the nation."
Miller reflected on Johnson's achievement, using Hartsfield International Airport as a sort of lens. It is consistently among the busiest airports in the world, an economic engine that rocketed Atlanta out of economic mediocrity.
"That would not have happened during the time of segregation," Miller said. "Doing away with segregation was very important."
He credited some of his predecessors, both in Georgia and elsewhere, for quietly declining to "demagogue the race issue," as some more highly visible and tragically wrong-headed Southern governors did.
``You had a group of enlightened Southern governors who came along almost at the same time. Bumpers in Arkansas, Carter in Georgia, Askew in Florida, the ones you had in South Carolina like McNair and West.
``I can't overemphasize the governors that had the foresight not to demagogue the race issue. If you look a few years back, the Southern states that were moving ahead were the Southern states that did not demagogue the race issue. At the same time Wallace was doing what he was doing in Alabama, you had a Fritz Hollings saying you had to abide by the rule of law and Vandiver saying he was wrong on 'No, not one,' and opening the University of Georgia."
What they did do, he said, was move the South slowly, and in fits and starts, but inevitably into realizing that education was the way up from poverty and backwardness. They drew the connection between economic development and education.
"You had a lot of these Southern governors who understood the one thing you didn't have in the South was an educated and skilled workforce. You had to have better educated people with more skills. You couldn't just get by on the good work ethic and no unions and cheap land, and the chambers of commerce painting, 'We Welcome Industry' on the water towers. You had to have something beyond building a spec building and getting someone to move into it. You had to have more than a rail siding. You had to have people who had some skills.''
And so, before long, the Sunbelt was born a booming financial free-for-all in the '60s, and in the '70s a haven for economic refugees from the rusting North. But will success erase the South? Will its merger with mainstream America dissipate what was uniquely "Southern" about a region that long nurtured its own burdened identity in the century after the Civil War?
"Perfesser" Miller says no.
``I happen to believe that it's almost the other way around. The South has Southernized the rest of the United States. Some of that is good and some of that may not be so good.''
The good part, says the unabashed country music fan, is the South's cultural colonization of the nation.
``Country music is popular now all over the country," Miller said with quiet glee.
The bad part: Some of the worst elements of traditional Southern politics have spread throughout the land.
``Some of the very things that Southern governors used to rail about federal interference and so forth you see that attitude everywhere.''
Looking back on his tenure, Miller discussed his own head-on collision with that "Fergit? Hell!" tradition, when he took aim at the Confederate symbol on the Georgia flag. It was not long before the massive machine of the 1996 Olympics was set to crank up in Atlanta. Miller cringed to think of Georgia in the spotlight of global attention, waving a flag that has been co-opted by the Kluxers, crazies and skinheads who make up the nation's latter-day fascist subculture. He recalled how an anti-integration Legislature put the symbol of the Confederacy on the state flag in the mid-1950s.
"I'm old enough to remember how that flag was changed in the '50s and why it was changed. I was around, I know. I was not in the Legislature, but I was in the Legislature five years after it happened."
With great fanfare, Miller proposed moving Georgia's flag out of the 19th Century. His proposal was a flop. It polarized the Legislature, ended in defeat and engendered years of bitterness among lawmakers.
"What would I have done differently? I would have probably got a better reading of the public than I did," he said. "I pride myself in thinking I know what the public wants. I used to get out among 'em a lot and also polled a lot. I never polled on that issue. Later I found the people of Georgia were opposed to it in every demographic group you could come up with. It doesn't matter what age group. It does not matter what race.
"The biggest mistake I made was once I ran into that buzz saw, I let it go on too long," he said. "I should have let go of it sooner.''
Miller has made a study of Georgia governors. His master's thesis was a revisionist examination of Rivers, whose progressive record was stained by suggestions of scandal in his final months in office. Miller argued that Rivers was unjustly tarnished by political enemies and that history would be kinder to him.
Modestly leaving aside his own record, he said Georgia's 20th Century progress is linked to several strong leaders.
"We've had a number of good governors," he said. "Ellis Arnall was very high. Hoke Smith, if you want to go back that far."
His own favorite for this century, however, is Carl Sanders.
``Sanders rejected that race issue that he could so easily have taken. He blocked the Legislature bringing Wallace over. He started the community colleges, did a lot for higher education.''
Finally, Miller bestowed his political blessing on Barnes, his heir, who will be Georgia's first governor of the new millennium.
``I was extremely pleased that he won it. He is well qualified for the job. I remember when he first came to the Senate as a 26-year-old. He's got an awful lot of brain power. I think he's doing very well. I expected him to do well.''
[Don Schanche Jr. has been covering Georgia news for 20 years. He was state Capitol bureau chief for The Macon Telegraph for five years and now is managing editor of The Union-Recorder in Milledgeville].
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Copyright © The Southerner 1999.