A heartfelt remembrance of Zell Miller
An unalterable deadline does not allow me to comment on certain events as quickly as I would like. Also, it is my policy to avoid writing about what everyone else happens to be writing about at the moment. Otherwise, I become just another voice crying in the wilderness, indistinguishable from all the others.
Having said that, permit me to tell you about my relationship with Zell Miller, knowing I am late in doing so and that you have no doubt heard or read the reminiscences of a lot of people this past week about this remarkable man who died March 23 at the age of 86.
I had only a few contacts with Miller while he was lieutenant governor. It was after he became governor and after I joined the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games that I got to know him up-close-and-personal. And, boy, did I ever.
When Atlanta was selected to host the Centennial Games in 1996, it was with the assurance that there would be no tax dollars spent on the construction of the venues and other details “inside the fence.” But it did not mean we would not need government support “outside the fence,” such as security, traffic management, permitting and various other things too numerous to mention.
Somehow, the public mantra became “we don’t need the government’s help.” Gov. Miller knew we did and was planning on helping us, but he was getting more and more irritated at hearing that stated publicly.
I had joined the organizing committee with responsibilities for media relations, but it was decided that government relations would be added to my portfolio.
Fast forward to a Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium in Athens. We were invited to sit in the president’s box at a UGA football game. I was told Gov. Miller was on the front row and I was to sit beside him. I was also told that the governor was “delighted” that I was going to take over management of the government relations function.
Suitably puffed up, I sat down beside him and was preparing to tell him all the wonderful things I was planning to do when he interrupted me to tell me all the things we had been doing that were not so wonderful.
I didn’t see much of the game that day. I was too busy saying, “yes sir” as I got my hide scalded by an obviously frustrated governor who had been waiting to let off steam. I have had a few hide-scaldings over my career, but there is nothing quite like a Zell Miller scalding.
I quickly discovered that once he had his say, that was it. No grudges. No recriminations. Just don’t make the same mistake twice. I made sure we didn’t.
As we got closer to the opening ceremonies, the governor called me one day and asked me to check on something for him but assured me he didn’t want me to do anything. He just needed some information. It seems that the Olympic torch was not coming through Young Harris. His sister had called him to ask what kind of governor he was if he couldn’t get the torch to pass through his hometown. He just wondered what he should tell his sister.
I told Gov. Miller I never made a commitment without having all the facts but in this case, he could call his sister and tell her the torch would indeed be coming through Young Harris. I then called the people organizing the route and was told the area was too mountainous and would take too long. After suggesting they might not be around to see the Olympic torch arrive in Atlanta, they suddenly discovered they could indeed run the torch through Young Harris. To say the governor was pleased would be an understatement. Nobody wants to be fussed at by their sister, not even a governor.
After that rocky start on a Saturday afternoon in Athens, we managed to end our Olympic relationship on a high note. He later appointed me to the State Ethics Commission and I saw him a number of times at functions around the state. One of the last times I spoke to Miller, I told him Georgia is a better place because of him. He seemed really pleased to hear that, especially coming from a guy that got the Olympic torch to come through his hometown. And especially because it happens to be the truth.