Transcript: Sen. Zell Miller Interview

Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., will make political history at the Republican National Convention, as the only person to deliver the keynote address conventions of opposing parties in the very same convention hall.

Tonight, at New York's Madison Square Garden, Miller will deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention.

When Bill Clinton was first nominated 12 years ago during the Democratic National Convention at the very same areana, Miller won rave reviews for declaring, "George [H.W.] Bush just doesn't get it."

Now on the verge of retirement, Miller tells Peter Jennings it's the Democrats who just don't get it. The following is an excerpt of the interview:

JENNINGS: Let me just ask you first about [your convention] speech. Are you excited about giving it?

SEN. MILLER: Yes, I'm looking forward to it. I have something I want to tell these people.

JENNINGS: Which is?

MILLER: Why a lifelong Democrat, who has voted for 13 Democratic presidential candidates, going all the way back to 1952, is here supporting a Republican for re-election.

JENNINGS: Big change, though not an immediate change for you. Why the change?

MILLER: There's really not been a great deal of change, because 72-year-old men don't change very much in their ways. I've been set in my ways for a long time because I'm a conservative Democrat, and there used to be a time where there was room for conservatives in the Democratic Party, but no more. But the main reason, of course, is because 9/11 changed everything. And I want the commander in chief of this country to be strong and relentless and take this fight to the terrorists, on their territory, if at all possible. I want a president who will grab them by the neck and not let them go to get a better grip.

JENNINGS: Well what makes you think that John Kerry wouldn't grab him by the neck — to use your phrase?

MILLER: I think that when John Kerry came back from Vietnam, he was unsure of whether America was a force for good or evil. And I think there's a certain amount of that uncertainty with the man still there. He talked about it in his convention speech, about that he saw the complexities of things. Well, when I hear a politician talk about seeing the complexities of things, that means it's a person that sees nothing but gray. They don't see black and white. They suffer from analysis paralysis, and they have a hard time making a decision. Jimmy Carter, a good man, saw the complexities of things. Bill Clinton, to a certain extent, saw the complexities of things. Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, they didn't see the complexities of things. They acted.

JENNINGS: Does that mean to you that Bill Clinton, for example, who you once called a brilliant governor and with whom I think you got along pretty well, was not a good president?

MILLER: Well, I don't think he governed as he had campaigned. When I came up here in 1992 and then made that keynote speech at Madison Square Garden, at that time, you remember, Bill Clinton was running as a centrist Democrat. He was going to take the party back to the center. I know the mantra by heart still. Punish criminals, instead of explaining away their behavior. He went down to see the Rainbow Coalition with Jesse Jackson and took [rapper] Sista Souljah on for some of her racist remarks. He talked about changing welfare as we knew it. He talked about the era of big government being over. That's how he campaigned, and that's why I was in that hall, speaking for that man at that time. Unfortunately, he got captured by the liberal element that is so prevalent in Washington and really controls the Democratic Party today, with all those left-wing leaning special interest groups. That administration didn't turn out like I had anticipated it was going to in '92.

‘9/11 Changed Everything’

JENNINGS: You said that since 9/11 everything has changed. Do you really mean the American way of life has changed since 9/11?

MILLER: Oh, yes. Yes. I think right now, since 9/11, I know this great-grandfather thinks this. I worry considerably what kind of world my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to grow up in. All grandparents and great-grandparents do that to a certain extent.

JENNINGS: But how do you think the American way of life has changed? Isn't one of the strengths of the country that the terrorists have not been able to change the way of life America?

MILLER: That's right. Because George Bush wants to change the way the terrorist way of life is, instead of letting them change our way of life. But there's no doubt, there's an uncertainty out there. I mean, all you have to do is drive around the city, or walk around the city, and you see this is not the same New York I used to come up here to.

JENNINGS: What is your definition of carrying the war to the terrorists? Of fighting it on their territory, not on American territory?

MILLER: Well just exactly what has happened by invading Afghanistan, by taking Saddam Hussein out, as far as Iraq is concerned. And making allies with Pakistan and getting things changed in Saudi Arabia. All those things together.

JENNINGS: When President Bush was elected, he described himself as being the uniter and not a divider. Four years later, the country's pretty divided. You'd agree about that?

MILLER: I would agree. I would agree about that, but I don't think it's George Bush's fault.

JENNINGS: What do you think it is?

MILLER: I think it's two things. I think it's the anti-war crowd. The anti-military crowd, really. That has caused the division. I also think it's the obstructionism that you find in the United States Senate especially today. I mean, I had a good friend named Bob Bullock, who was lieutenant governor of Texas (from 1991-1999). He and I had been lieutenant governors together for years, and then when he became the lieutenant governor to George Bush, I remember talking with him. And he said, you know, you can work with this man. You can depend on what he says. And Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas did that with George Bush. I think George Bush came up to Washington expecting to be able to greet, be able to find some Bob Bullocks up here that he could work with. But instead, what you find, is Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy. And the liberal Democrats are more interested not in working with the chief executive, but in changing the Senate back to a Democratic majority.

‘Kerry Is a Hero’

JENNINGS: You've described Sen. Kerry as one of the nation's great authentic heroes. One of the party's best known, and greatest leaders, and a friend.

MILLER: That's right. I think he is a hero. And I hope we'll still be friends after this is over. But I don't agree with his voting record. I don't agree with it at all.

JENNINGS: Is he qualified to be president?

MILLER: I don't think he would make a very good president.

JENNINGS: Why not?

MILLER: Well, because I think that there's an uncertainty and tentativeness about him. I don't think he will make a decision and stick with it. I mean look at where he's been. He's been all over the map on every issue.

JENNINGS: Do you think the Swift Boat ads against Kerry are accurate?

MILLER: I don't know, because I'm hearing two different sides. But I think that John Kerry volunteered for service. He volunteered for combat. I respect that, and I thank him for that.

JENNINGS: You're deeply under the skin at the moment of the Democratic Party, and all sorts of people that try to figure out why you're doing what you're doing. So let me ask you the obvious question. If you feel so strongly about the Republicans, why not leave the party? Or does it make any difference what label you have?

MILLER: Well, because I was here before most of those critics were ... I was a Democrat when I was born, I'll be a Democrat when I leave this earth. I would like to be around to help put the Democratic Party back together ... I have worked longer and harder in the Democratic party than most all of those critics. And as far as the controversy, Peter, this is nothing compared to what I ran into when I tried to change the Georgia flag. This controversy is nothing compared to that, nor is it even near as severe as whenever I put in a state lottery and ran on that in Georgia. I couldn't even hardly go to my church. My family members were even mad at me about that.

JENNINGS: One of the criticisms about you is that if you change to be a Republican, you'll just be one more voice. Is that unkind?

MILLER: I don't know that's unkind, but I'm not going to change to the Republican, and I certainly don't ask for any attention. I'd much rather be back in Georgia right now, with my two yellow labs, and my great-grandchildren and grandchildren around me.

JENNINGS: You mean you're not enjoying all this attention here in what some Republicans regard as enemy territory?

MILLER: An old country music song says, "I've enjoyed as much of this as I can stand." That's kind of how I feel.