Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2004/ 17 Elul 5764
The Zell factor
NEW YORK Note to Dr. Howard Dean: About that Bubba vote? Two words. Zell Miller.
Wonder no more what gets the good ol' boys' juices flowing, and don't pay no never mind to them talking heads on this particular question. The answer is simply this: real men taking charge, talking straight, telling truth, and leaving the girlie men to fuss about the nuances of terrorist sensitivity.
Miller's fiery, brimstone-studded speech on the penultimate night of the Republican convention was a quintessential testosterone moment that got professional harrumphers flustered and swing voters inspired. While pundits wondered whether Zell was over the top, too hot or too tough, Heartland Americans (and not a few journalists who shall remain unnamed in the interest of job security) were high-fiving and arm-pumping yessssssssss.
Out beyond the Beltway and other bluster zones, Americans have been waiting for someone to articulate the unvarnished truth. To them, the crossover senator from Georgia was a burning bush. Sure, he spoke Republican and was hyperbolic in condemning John Kerry. Hawkish and hawk-faced, his blunt speech wasn't just red meat; it was steak tartare.
But his Marine anger and paternal sincerity rang true, while the message he delivered - in the voice of father, grandfather and great-grandfather - spoke to deeper truths that many Americans feel even if they haven't been able to articulate them precisely. The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and the old default modes no longer work. The old political templates and loyalties do not apply.
That understanding prompted Miller to abandon his Democratic Party to endorse President George W. Bush for re-election. Saying he believes Bush is the best man for this historic and dangerous moment, Miller spoke to and for other like-minded parents, as well as for other ticked-off vets.
"And like you, I ask which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family? . There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future, and that man's name is George W. Bush."
It's a certainty that speeches like Miller's don't play well in certain sophisticated circles. He's got that funny accent, after all. And, in the vernacular of his native South, t'weren't nothin' nuanced about Miller's speech. Likewise, however, there's nothing nuanced about terrorists who hijack airplanes and plow them into buildings; who blow up buses filled with children; who sever the heads of kidnap victims for prime-time enemy recruiting films.
What such times call for are the qualities and strategies Miller colorfully described: "No matter what spider hole they may hide in or what rock they crawl under, George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip."
That sounds about right. One can argue with others - or oneself if you're Kerry - about how the Democrats would have handled Sept. 11, whether they would have taken the war to Iraq, or how they might negotiate current vulnerabilities. But I suspect Miller's passionate recitation of Kerry's Senate voting record against most military spending, as well as his own voluntary exile from a party he claims puts partisanship above national security, produced a new wave of closet Republicans.
That is, voters who may register Democrat and talk liberal, but who know in their hearts that life is fragile in unfamiliar ways and who prefer the devil they know. Hoping that profoundly bad guys will play nice if we ratchet up our sensitivity is a lethal fantasy, the consequences of which are now being demonstrated for France and Russia.
Following Wednesday night's performance, commentators wondered portentously whether Miller's speech might have (lights flicker as thunder clashes nearby) Unintended Consequences. Most likely it had the exact consequences Miller and Republican organizers had hoped for. Witness Ohioans in the wings.
As Chris Matthews of "Hardball" challenged Miller about some of his claims, provoking Miller to say he wished men could still challenge each other to duel, pollster Frank Luntz was interviewing a group of Ohio swing voters, who described Miller's speech as: fantastic, very upbeat, energetic, surprising, focused on the family, powerful but one-sided, intellectual, dynamic and on-target. Only one woman said he was "totally overboard."
In other words, Miller played well in places where spin is a cycle on the washer. If there were any Bubbas undecided before Miller, there aren't anymore. You can bet your duck blind on that.
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