Zell goes wild

Published September 2, 2004 5:35AM (EDT)

Maybe Zell Miller was just strung too tight following his wild-eyed attack on John Kerry Wednesday night. But following his prime-time convention address, he made the rounds on the cable TV circuit and stole the show -- and not in a good way. Miller's speech was so over-the-top (he essentially questioned Kerry's loyalty to America), it prompted mild-mannered talking head David Gergen to compare Miller to racist demagogue Lester Maddox, while Time's Joe Klein had to pick his jaw up off the ground before he could analyze it. But Miller's post-speech cable performance was even more jaw-dropping, as he first badly fumbled questions from CNN anchors, then lost it with "Hardball's" Chris Matthews, repeatedly challenging the MSNBC host to a duel and telling him to "shut up."

On CNN, he came under respectful but close questioning from Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, who pressed the wayward Democrat about why he mocked Kerry for using the phrase "occupiers" when describing U.S. troops in Iraq (Miller prefers "liberators"), when President Bush has himself used the same phrase for the same U.S. troops. Miller clearly had no idea that was the case and passed on giving a response. He was also asked why just three years ago he had introduced Kerry in Georgia as an American hero who had worked hard for our nation's security (the speech is still up on Miller's Web site). Miller suggested he was new to the Senate at the time and basically didn't know what he was talking about.

And about those weapons system votes that Miller criticized Kerry for making over a decade ago -- wasn't it true that while as secretary of defense Dick Cheney raised similar doubts about those very same systems? Miller said he'd let Cheney answer that himself. Finally, Blitzer asked Miller why he looked so angry during his speech, and couldn't that hurt the cause he was pushing? Miller, who in fact looked like he was suffering from flashback Atlanta road rage at the podium periodically, said he was sorry if he came across as angry because he didn't mean to.

But that was just the warm-up. Next it was over to Chris Matthews' "Hardball" on MSNBC where Miller, perhaps still bruised by his wobbly CNN showing, just plain lost it. Actually, Miller appeared from Madison Square Garden, while "Hardball's" set was over in Herald Square. And when Miller was announced he was greeted with a chorus of "boos" by the crowd of local Democrats assembled behind the "Hardball" taping area. Things went downhill for Miller from there.

Matthews asked Miller to defend his speech, and particularly his allegations that John Kerry voted "against" various defense appropriations. (As both Matthews and Miller know, voting against a large appropriations bill doesn't necessarily mean that you disapprove of every part of the bill). Miller got progressively angrier as Matthews persisted in holding him to his statement, telling Matthews several times that he wished he was in the studio so he could "get up in your face."

As Miller steamed, Matthews asked him if he thought that he was helping the political discourse in the country, and then, whether he even thought he was helping the Republicans by what he was saying. At that point Miller's meltdown peaked. He started waving his arms around, demanding Matthews "shut up" and let him answer the question. Miller then lapsed into a dialogue with himself wondering, "I don't know why I even came on this program," before returning to Matthews and announcing he wished they lived in a previous era because he would have "challenged you to a duel."

Thursday morning, Miller may deny he was serious when he said all of that, but the semi-deranged expression on his face at that moment suggested he'd truly lost control. Matthews, slightly embarrassed by the whole thing, laughed off Miller's left-field explosion, and invited him back tonight in person for a "more civil discussion." More important, Matthews insisted the show would get great ratings because everybody would be waiting to see if Miller was going to "beat me up."

Later, country star Larry Gatlin told MSNBC's Ron Reagan that Matthews was "out of line" and "rude." When the live audience booed, Gatlin told them, "Shut up or we'll have another duel." Another example of how Republicans are making good on George Bush's 2000 promise to "change the tone" of American politics -- apparently substituting dueling for debate. "Tonight was the night of the Angry White Men at the Republican Convention," said former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, quickly adding, "I don't mean that in a bad way," as if he was just too tired to get into a fight over it.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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