Following his stunningly vituperative and dishonest convention speech, Zell Miller somehow insists that he will forever be "a Democrat." But toward the end of his keynote address, the belligerent Georgia senator offered a clue to his true ideology. "I have knocked on the door of this man's soul," he said of the president, "and found someone home, a God-fearing man with a good heart and a spine of tempered steel."
Whatever party registration he may find convenient to profess, "Zigzag Zell" apparently has looked into his own soul and discovered a powerful affinity for the most extreme wing of the religious right in his home state. In the act of abandoning old friends and savaging his political heritage, Miller has been "born again."
So he declared last spring during an appearance at a dinner for Family Concerns Inc. -- a Georgia group committed to a "spiritual and moral war" to "turn America back to the God of the Bible." Based in one of the state's most conservative northern counties, Family Concerns is run by Nancy Schaefer, a former radio talk-show host, anti-abortion lobbyist and somewhat paranoid activist who suspects that environmental regulations are really a plot by the United Nations to undermine American sovereignty.
In years past, Schaefer never hesitated to express her contempt for Miller and his moderate, quasi-populist Democratic positions. She had plenty of opportunities to criticize the former governor when she was nominated for lieutenant governor by the Republicans in 1994 and ran unsuccessfully in the party's gubernatorial primary in 1998.
Only three years ago, she showed up at a county commission meeting where she "launched into a diatribe against Gov. Roy Barnes and his predecessor, Zell Miller; environmental regulation; the Endangered Species Act and the UN," according to the Atlanta weekly Creative Loafing.
That bitter history didn't discourage the senator from kowtowing to Schaefer and her fellow zealots last May 3, when he delivered the keynote address at their annual dinner. Excerpts of his humble remarks appear on a campaign flier for Schaefer, who is currently the Republican nominee in Georgia's 50th state Senate district:
"I thank my good friend Nancy Schaefer, founder and president of Family Concerns, and I thank all of you here who support it through your dedication and work and contributions and for keeping it alive. You do a great work. You do God's work.
"I want you to know my Lord and Savior has forgiven me ... and I hope you and Family Concerns can forgive me for my neglect and lack of understanding on the issues that were important to you and should have been important to me."
What issues has Miller neglected? For what does he feel the need to atone?
As governor, Miller was forthrightly pro-choice. He has abandoned that position, as he acknowledges in his new book, "A National Party No More," and now believes that the Supreme Court should overturn Roe vs. Wade. That's very much in keeping with his general endorsement of the Republican agenda, from regressive tax cuts to curtailing environmental regulation.
Miller's growing adherence to the religious right goes considerably deeper than the usual obsession with feminism and gay marriage. His new friend Schaefer boasts the endorsement of Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice thrown off the bench over a Ten Commandments monument he erected in his courthouse. And the Georgia senator seems to share their theocratic perspective on the Constitution and their hostility to the separation of church and state.
Last February, along with his Senate colleagues and religious right favorites James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., Miller signed on as an original sponsor of the Constitution Restoration Act. That bill, which would forbid federal judges from hearing any case that challenges the public "acknowledgment of God," represents an unprecedented assault on the independence of the judiciary. Although the bill has received little attention to date, it is an important priority for Schaefer, Moore, Phyllis Schlafly and Alan Keyes, the Republican senatorial nominee in Illinois.
Trashing the judiciary and the Constitution is cheap and easy, though. And trashing his former Democratic friends is profitable, especially when Miller is selling a book on the subject. But is he sufficiently repentant to atone for the sins that swelled his bank account?
After he left the governor's mansion in 1998, Miller picked up a lucrative "consultancy" with tobacco giant Philip Morris, which showered him with hundreds of thousands of dollars. His former friend and advisor James Carville reportedly believes that the Georgia Democrat's politics turned toward corporate Republicanism when he took the tobacco money.
Unlike many leaders on the religious right who have made their peace with the tobacco lobby, Miller's new mentor Nancy Schaefer still thinks promoting the killer weed is an affront to "basic Christian precepts." She worries about tobacco companies "targeting our youth and the weak of the world for financial greed."
Perhaps someday she will convince Zigzag Zell to apologize for that sin, too.