Posted: Sep 03, 2004 12:00 AM

First off, as a journalist, let me take the time to do what no other pundit has been willing to do: to thank Georgia Sen. Zell Miller for being named Zell. It's been a long time since a politician occasioned such euphoria over euphony in political commentary. From the conservatives I've already heard "Give 'em Zell!" "Zell it like it is!" "Zelling it Old School!" From the other side of the aisle we've had "Zellotry" and "Zell-out." And who the Zell knows what else is coming down the pike - Zello-Dolly?

So thank you, Sen. Miller (or your parents), because on this teeny-tiny point you, sir, are a uniter not a divider. And had you been christened Cleophus, the partisan divide would be just that much wider today.

Of course, Zell did some serious widening himself. His speech here Wednesday night was straight out of the Atkins diet cookbook: all red meat. As political theater, most observers here found the speech marvelous. Where they differ is on the question of whether or not it was smart.

The instant reaction from liberal and anti-Bush journalists, as well as the DNC, was that Miller was as bad as or worse than Pat Buchanan. DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe noted that at least Buchanan smiled in 1992 when he gave his (now somewhat undeservedly) infamous speech at that year's convention.

Matthew Yglesias of the American Prospect, dripping with nuance, denounced the speech as a "fascistic tirade." The New Republic openly compared Miller to Joe McCarthy. Jonathan Cohn explained that Miller was much worse than Buchanan because "Buchanan's speech, after all, was an assault on decency. Last night Miller declared war on democracy." Time magazine's Joe Klein declared on CNN, "I don't think I've seen anything as angry or as ugly as Miller's speech."

Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at the New Republic and a highly regarded blogger, noted the contrast between the Dem's Boston keynoter, Barack Obama - "a post-racial, smiling, expansive young American" - and the Republicans. "Then you see Zell Miller," Sullivan continued, "his face rigid with anger, his eyes blazing with years of frustration as his Dixiecrat vision became slowly eclipsed among the Democrats. Remember who this man is: once a proud supporter of racial segregation, a man who lambasted LBJ for selling his soul to the negroes."

This last bit is amusing, since Zell Miller was once considered a Southern statesmen by liberals because as governor he was willing to take the politically courageous step of removing the Confederate Battle Flag from the Georgia state flag. Indeed, Sullivan's magazine dubbed Miller "as reasonable a Democrat as there is." And Miller's stemwinder of a speech at the Democratic Convention in 1992 - in which he grilled the first President Bush ("If the 'education President' gets another term, even our kids won't be able to spell potato") - didn't provoke any assaults on his humanity.

In other words, when Democrats are mean or harsh they are labeled as passionate populists or some such. When Republicans are, they get called things like "Cotton Mather behind the cross" (Maureen Dowd's words). What is "righteous anger" for Democrats becomes "hate" when offered by Republicans (or, in this case, by like-minded Democrats.)

Now, none of this is to say that Miller's speech wasn't stern stuff. But was it really, in Sullivan's words, "gob-smackingly vile"? (Translation for the un-British: very vile). This charge rests on the assertion that Miller was questioning the patriotism of Kerry and the Democratic leadership (not rank-and-file Democrats, as so many commentators seem to think), despite such qualifiers as: "It is not their patriotism - it is their judgment that has been so sorely lacking."

Both strategically and substantively, I think the speech probably crossed the line in parts. Substantively, it clearly painted with too broad a brush, at times suggesting Kerry & Co. are more than merely wrong but are actually hostile to America. And, strategically, I think the style went a bit too far. If there had been a bit less Southern wrath and a bit more Southern charm it might have been even more effective.

However, in part because Kerry's left his record undefended, Miller's speech was effective (and not that much more negative than, say, Al Sharpton's in Boston). The focus group "real Americans" I saw on TV were impressed, and I bet lots of other Americans were too. The question is whether that impression will be revised in the next few weeks as the Democrats and the media try to spin this as a disaster.

Indeed, the Republicans took a big gamble when they decided to give 'em Zell at this convention. If a Republican had delivered a speech half as relentless, the media and the Democrats would have colluded to make it the only story of the week. The Republicans calculated that a respected Democrat would be inoculated because, again, Democrats are never, ever, mean - even when they suggest Republicans are baby-killers (as Jesse Jackson did at the 1992 convention). So by concentrating all of their ammo in one sustained blast of Zellfire, they gambled that the usual counterspin about Republican "hate" wouldn't wash.

Only time will Zell if they were right.