The Democrats' 'Poster Boy'
Max Cleland, who lost his U.S. Senate seat to a Republican in 2002, says he's ambivalent about personifying his party's anger.
Max Cleland barnstormed through the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, energetically rallying others on behalf of fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry
As a young man, he stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall. Today, Cleland roughly measures 4 feet, having lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam. He seems tinier, though, seated in his wheelchair alongside Alaska's strapping former governor, Tony Knowles.
There is a bit of awkwardness as people approach Cleland, unsure of the proper etiquette. Do you extend a left hand to shake his left hand, or squeeze his left hand with your right one, or skip the ritual altogether? In the few seconds it takes to decide, Cleland hollers a greeting—"Hey, boss!"—and his big paw is wrapped around his visitor's neck, reeling him in for a hug.
It is so sudden and so natural, Cleland can't seem warmer or happier or more at ease putting others at ease—never mind how he feels inside.
In November 2002, Cleland lost his bid for reelection after a bitter, brutal campaign. The race is best remembered for a single advertisement—a 30-second spot that flashed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned Cleland's leadership and judgment in fighting terrorism. Although the ad's impact was probably overstated, it made Cleland what he is today: a martyr for Democrats across the country.
"There are two great motivators this year," says party strategist Jenny Backus. "Florida 2000 and Georgia 2002."
And so Cleland has campaigned on behalf of Democrats across the country, emerging as a key player in John F. Kerry's presidential bid. No group has been more vital to Kerry's fortunes than his fellow Vietnam veterans, and few vets have done more than Cleland to help the Massachusetts senator.
In some ways, Cleland is more powerful as a symbol than he ever was as a senator.
As difficult as it is physically, Cleland has visited more than 20 states, appearing at countless VFW halls and veterans' memorials and barbecues and picnics and Democratic fundraisers. He has to, he says, to preserve his mental health and stability. Inside, he's a mess.
For months after his defeat, Cleland sank into a black hole. He joined the support group Al-Anon, and doctors prescribed three kinds of medication to treat his depression. It was "worse than coming back from Vietnam," he says. "Worse than being blown up."
"The Senate gave me a sense of meaning, purpose and destiny," Cleland says in his soft drawl. "When you lose that you've lost something profound. It's more than an arm. It's more than a leg."
Cleland insists his election crusade is not motivated by hatred or vengeance. It's the best tonic, he says, for the emotional upheaval he still suffers. Clearly, though, Cleland is an angry man. He vilifies President Bush and Karl Rove and the other Republican operatives ("right-wing nutsos") he blames for his defeat. He condemns the war in Iraq, calling his vote in favor the worst mistake he made in the Senate. (Bush is "waging a holy war" based entirely on "b.s. intelligence.") He is blunt in a way that Kerry never would or could be; in that way, defeat has been liberating. "I can go where my heart leads me," he says.
Still, for all his passion, it is striking to hear Cleland speak with such ambivalence about becoming, as he puts it, "the poster boy for what the Republicans did to me."
"I'm a veteran, not a victim," he says. "I've never been comfortable with that role."
Dozens of people eagerly await Cleland inside the pale yellow farmhouse on a hillside overlooking Anchorage. The buffet table is set and the early evening sunshine casts a silvery glow on the spacious back deck. But first there is personal business to attend to. An aide has done reconnaissance work and found the bathroom door too narrow for Cleland's wheelchair to pass. And so the aide pushes the guest of honor behind a woodpile so he can relieve himself before the reception begins.
After more than 30 years of hardship, Cleland can laugh and joke and treat such indignities with seeming nonchalance. He and his traveling companion, fiancée Nancy Ross, break up recalling the time an aide went to Cleland's apartment to pick up a suit for a black-tie dinner and called in a panic, unable to find the senator's shoes.
But truthfully, life has never been easy. Just getting dressed takes 90 minutes each morning—Cleland insists on doing it himself—and at 61 he finds "the chair is getting more difficult. The carpet is getting thicker, ramps get more steep and curbs get higher."
"I miss my hand more and more," he says at the end of a 14-hour day, suddenly sounding exceedingly tired. "I miss my legs more and more."
The poignant thing is that, for all his struggles, Cleland readily concedes he probably would not have had a political career if not for the mishap that cost him his limbs. "I'd have been a frustrated history professor somewhere," he says over a nightcap of milk and a warm brownie, absent-mindedly rubbing the stump of his right arm.