Zell's final zag

Could Miller's unbalanced keynote tirade hurt the GOP?

The morning after delivering his now-infamous, scorched-earth speech to the Republican National Convention, Zell Miller was more reflective, possibly even a bit contrite, in an on-air chat with his old friend, radio talk-show host Don Imus.

"A 73-year-old man doesn't have any business coming to New York and getting involved in all this stuff," the ex-Georgia governor mused, referring to himself in the third person. "He ought to stay down in Young Harris with his two yellow labs, Gus and Woodrow, and let the world go by, I guess."

What had changed Miller's tune from one of fire and brimstone the night before to something arguably close to self-pity?

Perhaps it was hearing that a disappointed Sen. John McCain of Arizona had fretted to reporters that Miller's vitriol could easily backfire on the GOP. Or seeing Republican cronies like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist placed on the defensive in having to explain why the convention's keynote address was so bitter and nasty.

Maybe Miller realized what it meant when first lady Laura Bush took pains to downplay — if not disavow — his savage attack on Sen. John Kerry's command fitness ("I don't know that we share that point of view," she told Tom Brokaw).

It could be that, by the time of the Imus interview, Miller already had learned that he and his wife, Shirley, were unceremoniously bumped from their enviable place on the stage during the president's speech — a move that seemed a clear acknowledgement that Bush's most ardent Democratic cheerleader had become an embarrassment.

Or, perhaps Miller was uncharacter-istically introspective because he simply had watched his snarling, spiteful performance on tape and realized that after a half-century in local, state and national politics, this toxic image might be what sticks.

In other words, it's quite possible that Zell already knew just how badly he'd fucked up.

Certainly, the talking heads weren't kind. While Miller has always acted as if he doesn't care what folks say about him, in truth the former history teacher is obsessive about his image — carefully cultivating private friendships even with reporters he excoriates in public.

So it had to smart a little when Republican pundit and ex-Nixon aide David Gergen told Larry King that Miller's venomous diatribe "reminded (me) that Zell Miller began his career by working for Lester Maddox, a man of hate. And, unfortunately, he capped his career tonight by sounding like a man of hate."

Elsewhere, media analysts such as Newsweek's Howard Fineman predicted that Miller's seething anger was not likely to play well with the country's undecided voters — particularly women — who would seem exactly the demographic the GOP was hoping to court when it gave the coveted keynote slot to a Democrat.

Even before he'd left the stage at Madison Square Garden, commentators had begun picking apart Miller's speech, highlighting some of the specious allegations, disingenuous omissions and downright whoppers directed at Kerry and his fellow Democrats.

For instance, when Miller excoriated unnamed party leaders "for calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators," it seemed no one had reminded him that Bush himself had applied the O-word to U.S. troops a few months earlier.

And after Miller trashed Kerry's voting record on weapons programs, pundits pointed out that many of the "no" votes dated to an early '90s military downsizing guided by the current president's father and by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

Then there was Miller's apparent attack on democracy itself, when he seethed that "while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats' manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief."

It's called an election, Ziggy.

But most vividly, there was the unfathomable rage, the ferocious, half-berserk quality of the speech and the bizarre follow-up interview with Chris Matthews of "Hardball" — an interview that caused many Georgians to wonder if their crotchety ex-governor had finally gone bonkers.

"It looked like he was unhinged, challenging Chris Matthews to a duel," says Georgia State University political science professor Daniel Franklin. "Miller really looked like he'd lost it."

Across the national media spectrum, reactions to Miller's over-the-top performance ranged from outright ridicule to concern for the septuagenarian's mental health (or both, in the case of Jon Stewart, who described him as "bat-shit crazy") to questions of whether the senator had actually done Bush more harm than good.

His moment in the spotlight was compared to other conservative bombshells that backfired: Barry Goldwater's 1964 "extremism in the defense of liberty" speech and, more commonly, Pat Buchanan's 1992 "culture war" screed, which was credited with helping split the GOP and alienating moderate voters. Even McCain observed that Miller's rantings "makes Buchanan's speech in Houston look like milquetoast."

While the Bush campaign still speaks of sending Miller out to stump for the president, his new Democratic-attack-dog-frothing-at-the-mouth image suggests he'll be trotted out only to the party faithful — and not used to win over undecided voters.

Back in Georgia, state Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Kahn — something of a partisan bully himself — seemed genuinely relieved a day after Miller spoke. The party spent at least $35,000 to launch a website — www.listentothisvoice.com — and to run TV ads all last week in an attempt to counter the potential damage from Zell's keynote.

It's too early to tell if Miller's address will help or hurt Bush. What does seem likely is that his speech in New York will forever tarnish Miller's legacy, cleanly transforming his image from that of a fiercely independent, if disgruntled, Democrat to that of an unbalanced, partisan hatchet man, a GOP patsy furiously spewing Karl Rove's most slanderous talking points.

Only the next few years will tell if Miller ends up like an admittedly wealthier version of his mentor, Lester Maddox, sitting alone on his porch in Young Harris, embraced only by right-wing extremists, occasionally called on to defend his own fringy views, venturing out only to joylessly sign a few more books.

After years of political opportunism that has led him from the gutter politics of race-baiting early in his career to such mixed gubernatorial achievements as the lottery, sprawl-inducing highways and two-strikes-and-you're-out prison sentences, perhaps it's appropriate that Zell has finally stopped zigging and zagging. Now we know who he really is.