Floor and Committee Statements

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Isakson Honors Life of Zell Miller


   Mr. ISAKSON. Mr. President, on the 23rd day of March, 2018, just a little over 2 weeks ago, Zell Bryan Miller of the State of Georgia--former Member of this body, former Governor of the State of Georgia, former State senator in the State of Georgia, former chairman of the Democratic Party in the State of Georgia--who contributed immensely to his State, passed away at his beloved home in Young Harris, GA, in Towns County.

   I am here to pay tribute to Zell and his life and his contributions to our country, both for a purposeful reason, as far as a fellow Member, but also for a very personal reason for me, because he is an individual I met through politics, became one of my best friends through politics, and probably had more influence personally on my life than anybody else I know in public service.

   As I said, Zell died in Young Harris, GA, the home of Young Harris College. Zell Miller was, first of all, a teacher and a writer. He wrote over 10 books. He taught. He was educated at the University of Georgia. He taught at Young Harris College. He always taught throughout his career. Even as Governor and Lieutenant Governor, he was an instructor and a teacher. He was professorial, but he was tough as nails. There was only one way to do it and that was the Zell way, he used to say, and he knew how to get it done.

   He was for four terms the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. He then ran for Governor in 1990. I happened to be his opponent in 1990, and I will get to that in just a minute. He won that election. It was pretty close. It has gotten a lot closer since then. Pretty soon, when I have grandchildren, I am going to tell them all I won. So far, that is not the case. But he won, and he was elected twice to be Governor of Georgia.

   As Governor of Georgia, he embraced education as a major issue. As I said, he was a teacher and was all about teaching. He did something that nobody had ever done and in numbers that were very impressive. He created what is known as the HOPE Scholarship, funded by the Georgia Lottery. A lot of lotteries have been passed and a lot of liquor referendums have been passed by promising people that the money was going to go to education, but it never really did. In Georgia, the way it was done is that it came out of the debates that he and I had in our race for Governor. We finally passed a constitutional amendment to allow legal gambling in Georgia and then passed the HOPE Scholarship, which was where the money went. We tied up all the money made from the lottery separately for three things: college scholarships for eligible Georgia students, 4-year-old voluntary prekindergarten for Georgia pre-Ks to the age of 4, and technology and innovation and wiring and infrastructure in our public schools.

   The election was in 1990. He was elected in 1990 as the Governor of Georgia. He served two terms, but by the end of the decade, the lottery had passed. Since its passage, 1.8 million Georgia children have gotten their college education--1.8 million--and 1.6 million Georgia 4-year-olds have gone to prekindergarten voluntarily. Georgia's public schools are wired. They are on the internet. We deliver content through distance learning. It is at the leading edge of technology in public education of any State in the country.

   Now, politicians can take credit for a lot of things, but I don't know of anybody who can take credit for 1.8 million college degrees, 1.4 million prekindergarten programs, wiring schools for the information technology of the 21st century, and doing it all based on a personal effort and commitment to see to it that the more we are educated, the better the State will be.

   I said that Zell was an author. He was an author and a marine. He served in the Marine Corps from 1953 to 1956. He wrote a number of books about the Marine Corps. He wrote a number of articles about the Marine Corps. He wrote one book called ``Corps Values.'' The values he learned in the Marine Corps he used throughout his life in education, as Governor, as a father, and as a family man.

   Zell's wife is Shirley Miller. Shirley is a wonderful lady, and I got to be with her a little bit 2 weeks ago during the services. Zell and Shirley are Georgia's forever first family, not just because they were Governor and first lady together and Lieutenant Governor and first lady together but also because Shirley was a partner with Zell. She wasn't just his wife. Shirley worked tirelessly for Zell and for the State of Georgia, and to this day, she works tirelessly for our State. During Zell's more difficult years--over the last few years having the difficulties he had healthwise--Shirley was there to be with Zell every single day.

   Zell Miller came to the Congress of the United States in a very unique way. Paul Coverdell, who had the seat that I hold today, died. Paul was a Republican. He was in his second term as a Republican. Roy Barnes was the Governor of Georgia, a Democrat, and when Paul Coverdell died, Roy Barnes called Zell up, who was then the immediate past Governor, and said: Zell, I need you to go to Washington and serve for me because the body is getting pretty close politically up there. We need to make sure a Democrat is in that place to replace Paul.

   I wasn't involved in the conversation because I was hoping they were going to call me up, which I will get to in a minute. They didn't, but they did later. But they hadn't done it at that time. Roy said to Paul: You just have to do it for me, Governor Miller. You have to make sure that Georgia stays Democratic.

   Zell went on public television and said: I want to accept this appointment to the U.S. Senate to fill this seat, but I am going to vote like Paul Coverdell.

   He knew how important Paul's service had been in the State. He knew the conservative movement had taken the State and was moving in that direction. Zell was a man of conscience and principle who recognized the importance of the U.S. Senate seat, but, more importantly, he recognized the wishes of the voters. He told Roy Barnes, he told me, and he told everybody in the State: I am going to take it, but I will vote like Paul Coverdell.

   When that 4 years was up of finishing that term of Paul Coverdell, Zell Miller decided not to run again. I was in the U.S. House at that time, and he ran a press conference here in Washington to say: I will not seek reelection. That was in 2003.

   I got on the phone, called my wife, and said: I am going to go see Zell. If he is not going to run, I am going to run for that seat. That would be a good way to end my career and make a contribution to my State.

   I called Zell, and I said: Governor, can I come to see you this weekend in Young Harris.

   He said: Yes, come on.

   So I got in my pickup truck, which is a good way to drive in North Georgia, where a pickup truck is a standard operating vehicle. It was kind of a snowflake morning in North Georgia and the North Georgia mountains in Young Harris. I sat down with Zell at the fireplace, with Woodrow and Gus, the two dogs, talking about politics. Finally, I got around to the subject of saying: Well, Zell, the reason I am here is that you announced that you are not going to run for reelection. I want to know if you have any issue with my running to replace you.

   He said: Put your shoes on, son. You can win that seat. Let me know what I can do to help you.

   I have never forgotten the encouragement, never forgotten what he said, and never forgotten the challenge I felt I had to thank the guy who had beaten me for Governor in 1990--to make a statement like that when I was going to seek to replace him in the U.S. Senate 24 years later. It made a lot of difference to me in my life.

   Zell was a unique individual, and there has never been one like him. He was a Democrat the day he was born, and he was a Democrat the day he died.

   A lot of people remember he wrote a book, ``A National Party No More,'' which made a lot of Democrats mad. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention and made a lot of Republicans mad, and then he spoke at the Republican National Convention--the only elected person in history to deliver the keynote address at both national conventions, Republican and Democratic--not in the same year but in the same decade.

   Zell said what he thought, he thought what he said was right, and he delivered on everything he ever said, and if he ever was wrong, he apologized. In his latter years, he appointed many of his former opponents to offices of importance in our State.

   For me, this is the first time I can publicly say thank you to Zell Miller. I know he is looking down, and I hope he is listening to what I am about to say.

   When he beat me in 1990 and when I ran to replace Sam Nunn when Sam stepped down in 1996 and lost that seat as well, I thought I was through with public service. I had made my best effort and done as well as I could serving in the legislature but couldn't make it to that higher place.

   After I had run for Sam Nunn's seat, about 2 months after the race was over, Zell called me up, in August 1996, and said: Johnny, I have a problem. I have a Republican State school superintendent and a Democratic legislature, and they are fighting like hell, and I can't solve the problem. But if I name you as school board chairman, then you can come over here and balance this out, get the politics out of it, and help to solve the problem.

   Governor, I appreciate that, but I know what happens on a school board: You have 11 members on the board. I am chairman, and there are 10 other people who vote. You can't change 10 people's minds unless you know who those 10 people are.

   He said: You tell me who else to appoint. I will fire the others and appoint the new people. Come over to the mansion.

   So I went over to the mansion, and we sat there with his operator at the telephone desk and for 2 hours called people I knew I could trust and believed in to help me with public education. I asked them to serve with me on the State board of education, take it over, clean up the mess which had taken place and which Zell acknowledged thoroughly.

   I accepted, he made the appointment, and over 2 years, we had a remarkable time period. In large measure because I thought my political career was over, I didn't think about what I was doing as much politically as I thought practically for kids. Zell wanted very much to see public education as the apex of his career, and so he wanted to make sure in that second term, it was. I accepted. He worked hard. We joined together, and we--to this day--had a great period of time for public education in our State in terms of improvement, cashing in on the HOPE scholarship, and doing all the things that we did later on.

   I could go on and on, but I will just say this: I have worked with a lot of people, and I have known a lot of people. I have never known a better one than Zell Miller. I have never known anyone more true to their word, more solid to be counted on, who accepted their oath of office and every responsibility that went with it, who would say they were sorry when they needed to say they were sorry and would fight like hell when they needed to fight like hell and would never take no for an answer if they wanted you to do the right thing for the State of Georgia.

   For me on this night in Washington, DC, having gone to the funeral of my dear friend Zell Miller, having shared with his family and many others who loved him as I have over the years during those 2 days in Atlanta, let me close by saying that one of Georgia's greatest citizens and probably our greatest Governor, Georgia's first family in perpetuity, Zell and Shirley Miller, will be missed greatly by our State and will be missed greatly by me. I thank God I had the opportunity to know Zell Bryan Miller and learn from him in the best way you can, and that is by working for him.

   God bless you, Zell. Thank you for what you did on behalf of the people of Georgia. God bless you and the United States of America.