In January, Sen. Zell Miller ends a political career in which the one constant was his claim to be a champion of his native Appalachia. Miller was quick to criticize stereotypes of "hillbillies" and "white trash," and he would probably like to be remembered for pioneering the Hope Scholarship program while governor of Georgia. But his tenure in the US Senate overshadowed everything else he did and proved that he was only interested in helping the poor of Appalachia when it was politically advantageous.
Miller's political career started in the late 1950s and soon turned very ugly. He attacked President Lyndon Johnson for supporting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then went on to work for one of the most virulent racists of that era. Lester Maddox won the governorship of Georgia in 1966 after ending a sit-in at his restaurant by chasing the demonstrators away at gunpoint. Miller served as Gov. Maddox's executive secretary, but the 1970s and '80s brought a group of centrist southern politicians, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, into Southern politics. Miller accordingly adopted a more moderate and populist approach while winning a variety of statewide offices. The new Miller reached his peak during his first term as governor of Georgia (1991-95), during which he devised the Hope Scholarship, denounced George Bush Sr. as an incompetent "aristocrat" in a keynote speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, and even tried to get the Confederate battle flag removed from the Georgia state flag.
However, when the GOP made its big electoral comeback in 1994 and Miller nearly lost the governorship to a right-wing defender of Georgia's Confederate "heritage," the ever-ambitious Zell started changing his tune once again. By 2000, when he was appointed to finish the late Paul Coverdell's Senate term, he had moved to the far right on just about every issue, from economics to abortion. Miller became obsessed with tax cuts for millionaires, and Sen. Zell's attitude makes an interesting contrast to Gov. Zell's. Back in 1992, the governor ridiculed Dan Quayle for being an out-of-touch rich kid:
"I know what Dan Quayle means when he says it's best for children to have two parents. You bet it is! And it would be nice for them to have trust funds, too. But we can't all be born rich and handsome and lucky. That's why we have a Democratic Party."
By 2002, however, Miller had warmed up to trust-fund recipients -- so much so that he decided that inheritance taxes unfairly oppressed them. Ignoring a rising tide of government red ink, the Georgia senator voted to eliminate the estate tax permanently, even though that would have required exceeding the deficit limits set by the Budget Act. Miller also helped make May 15, 2003, a banner day for the rich. On that date, the Senate voted down a pair of proposals to slow implementation of the Bush tax cut for those in the top income bracket, and to redirect that revenue elsewhere. One of the proposals would have used the money saved to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. The other would have put the savings into financial aid for college students from low-income families. Despite Census Bureau data showing that poor southerners were suffering under Bush-style economics, Miller voted against both plans.
The man once known as the "education governor" also gave President Bush a free pass for refusing to provide full funding for his "No child left behind" initiative. Rounding out his attack on working-class Americans, Sen. Zell voted for the president's new labor regulations eliminating overtime pay for millions of workers. During his Senate career, Miller's only useful contributions were his periodic attacks on snobs who ridiculed poor southerners (such as in 2003, when he upbraided CBS for its planned reality show, The Real Beverly Hillbillies). But mostly, Miller used his Appalachian background as a prop to help sell George Bush Jr.'s aristocratic agenda to prime-time TV audiences. By the end of his career, Miller had become the southern accent of Wall Street and Harvard Business School. For people living under the label "white trash," Zell Miller was nothing but a sell-out.
Chris Pepus is a writer in St. Louis.