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Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2001 /27 Kislev, 5762

Matt Towery

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Consumer Reports

That senator with the funny name -- OVER the past year, as I have appeared on talk shows or given speeches around the country, I have found it interesting that the shows' hosts or audience members frequently ask if I've ever heard of or know anything about a U.S. senator with an odd first name -- Zell.

To some, particularly those in the Southeastern United States, the name Zell Miller is a familiar one. After years of serving as Georgia's lieutenant governor, Miller ascended to the governorship in 1991. His eight years there were considerably successful and often dramatic. The mystery of Zell Miller is what will make him one of America's most talked about leaders.

Miller was born and bred in the mountains of North Georgia, whose people are known for their fierce sense of independence and stoical approach to life's challenges. Zell Miller, whose career started as a college professor, is a man who learned the art of politics with the mind of an inquisitive student.

Miller's unique political and personal style has garnered national attention more than a few times. In 1996, Bill Clinton asked then-Governor Miller to give his renomination speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton was re-elected that year, partially by pushing on a national scale a popular Miller creation: Georgia's HOPE Scholarship for college-bound high school graduates. He seemed to be a Democrat's Democrat.

By 1998, Miller appeared to be headed back to North Georgia for an ideal professional combination of teaching and serving on major national corporate boards.

Then came a shocking tragedy. Beloved Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia died unexpectedly. That's when Miller's successor as governor, the brilliant political strategist and popular Gov. Roy Barnes -- who is viewed as being far more affable and outgoing than Miller -- acted swiftly to fill the post with the best-known Democrat in Georgia, Miller. Next, Miller ran in a special election against another Georgia icon, that state's first GOP senator, Mack Mattingly. But the race was hastily called, and Mattingly knew that he would be running mainly to keep the Republican faithful in tow so that George W. Bush could win the state's significant electoral vote for president.

Miller was re-elected to a full term, and that's when the lifelong Democrat started to allow his independent nature come to the fore. It started with Miller's early support of Bush's education plan. That move was quickly followed with Miller's early endorsement of John Ashcroft to be U.S. attorney general. Soon thereafter, Miller was supporting the president's efforts to pass a tax cut. And while Miller's polling numbers soared with each of these stands, some Democrats began to grouse.

But true to form, just when Republicans thought they could place a huge elephant pin on Sen. Miller's lapel, the cagey veteran moved in the other direction. He declared his intention to address the issue of poverty and illiteracy in certain rural areas of the South, especially those with heavy African-American populations. That's hardly a Republican-type issue.

While many Democrat stalwarts breathed a sigh of relief, others, such as Miller and Clinton's former strategist James Carville, remained shocked at Miller's willingness to be bipartisan in a town where such an approach is rarely seen.

That brings us to Zell Miller's most recent actions. Miller, a former Marine, wrote last week a passionate and extremely articulate op-ed piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the piece, Miller expressed strong support for President Bush's intention to establish military tribunals for some prisoners captured in the war on terrorism. Miller's logic was clear: If the current military code of conduct provides for a military tribunal for our own servicemen and women who violate rules, why not the same treatment for those who are captured as enemies of our nation?

Miller's column was cited by a congressional committee chairman late last week prior to a statement by Attorney General John Ashcroft defending the policy.

The irony of all this is that Georgia, the state that produced Jimmy Carter out of nowhere, may well be quietly incubating another future president in its current governor, Roy Barnes. Many national political observers see Barnes as the rising Southern Democrat for the future.

But in the meantime, they will come to know the name Zell Miller. It will increasingly become a household name. And the man who spent his entire life as a Democrat will become a nationally prominent senator for, ironically, serving as a rare symbol of the character trait he learned in his beloved mountains -- independence.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate