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Keeping up appearances

Bill Shipp

University System Chancellor Tom Meredith may wish to consider a career in the theater when he departs his Georgia post, probably in September.

Meredith turned in a stunning performance at a recent closed-door session of the Board of Regents, according to sources who were present. Faced with all-but-certain dismissal and termination of his contract, the head of Georgia's vast college network threw himself on the mercy of the board and won at least a reprieve for his job.

His let-me-stay speech - much of it devoted to his long climb to success from modest beginnings - brought tears to at least two regents, our impeccable source says. Both weepy regents, who had earlier agreed to fire Meredith, said they could not bear to send the chancellor packing. Meredith spoke from notes on a set of index cards and paced himself, much like a skilled actor or political orator, our reviewer says.

Even so, Meredith is expected to give notice in September that he is leaving the University System.

At the end of the May meeting, Board of Regents Chairman Joel Wooten announced Meredith had been granted a one-year contract and indicated he would remain at his post. However, the board split badly and bitterly over keeping Meredith.

Wooten's account of the closed meeting and the actual session that took place are as "different as day and night," says our source. "The meeting got mean. A lot of feelings were hurt. And they won't soon heal."

Wooten asked regents to remain silent about what transpired. His request was not completely honored. Obviously.

One encounter between regents involved a perceived snub of one African American on the board, our insider says. In other instances, some regents switched between favoring dismissal of Meredith and finding a new chancellor.

By the way, a regents committee had already visited Meredith, informing him that his career at Georgia had come to an end - and that his contract would not be renewed.

The chancellor's tenure in Georgia started careening toward the rocks when:

1. He sought and won a systemwide tuition increase to offset Gov. Sonny Perdue's severe budget cuts for higher education.

2. Meredith went job hunting when regents failed to pay the full amount of his compensation package.

3. He failed to close a deal in which foundations representing UGA, Georgia Tech and the Medical College of Georgia would sign an agreement that they were subservient to the Board of Regents.

4. He also reportedly remained a close ally of exiting UGA athletics director Vince Dooley, whose contract UGA President Mike Adams failed to extend two years ago. Dooley's departure has set off a firestorm of controversy and, even now, infects much of the actions of the Board of Regents.

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Don't be surprised to see former Sen. Zell Miller make at least one more sharp turn in his political career.

As Miller crisscrossed the state last week autographing his new Democrat-lambasting book, "A Deficit of Decency," a close friend of the 73-year-old author confided that Miller may play an important behind-the-scenes role in the prospective 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton. (No, that's not a typo.)

"He really likes and admires Hillary, and they have remained friends through all this (Miller's conversion to ultraconservatism)," says the Miller pal who advised him on strategy in his newfound literary career.

Predicting Hillary might be elected president in 2008, Miller writes in his latest tome, "The nomination is Hillary's for the asking. ... Her current political metamorphosis may make her more acceptable to Middle America. ... She is one tough customer, untiring and relentless in the pursuit of a goal. She also has the best political strategist in the world at her elbow (apparently meaning former President Clinton)."

This could be a case of strange bedfellows in the making. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has praised Sen. Clinton and indicated he favors her approach to health-care reform. Try this for a bizarre vision of the future: President-elect Hillary Clinton marches into the White House, flanked by Newt Gingrich and Zell Miller - with a huffing-and-puffing Bill Clinton tagging along behind.

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Perdue may not have a cakewalk after all in his quest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year. Former Cobb Commission Chairman Bill Byrne, whom Perdue defeated in the 2002 primary, is turning up the volume of criticism on the Perdue administration on a variety of fronts. Earlier, former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed said he was dedicated to doing what it takes to help Perdue win re-election.

However, Reed may not have the time and resources to come to the aid of Perdue. As a candidate for lieutenant governor, Reed is already watching the line of possible Democratic and Republican opponents grow longer by the day. (Democratic Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond is the latest possible candidate to launch a trial balloon.) As a big-time lobbyist, Reed sees his legal bills soaring and his bad press spreading regarding his anti-gaming lobbying activities in Texas and Alabama.

Even so, our oddsmakers see Reed as a favorite to win the lieutenant governor's office next year. Incumbent Perdue may have a much tougher time hanging onto his job.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.