The Democrats’ ‘Poster Boy’

Times Staff Writer

Max Cleland has just finished speaking at the Veteran’s Memorial in downtown Anchorage when the swarm begins, people lining up 14-deep for a chance to meet the former Democratic U.S. senator from Georgia. He looks almost regal, perched on a white pillow as members of the audience stand reverently before him. He greets them one by one—smiling, bantering, posing for snapshots for more than half an hour, or three times the length of his speech to the Saturday crowd. It is a typical Cleland appearance.

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.

Growing up in Georgia, Cleland knew only that he wanted to be “somebody that did good things.” He was a straight-A student and star athlete at Lithonia High School outside Atlanta, earning letters in baseball, basketball and tennis. A summer semester at American University in Washington, D.C., fueled his interest in politics, but it was Vietnam that beckoned.

His father, who traveled the state selling auto wax and other car-care products from his trunk, was a World War II veteran, and Cleland didn’t want to miss his own generation’s war. So he joined the Army and volunteered for Vietnam. “I never could do anything with my life if I hadn’t passed that line and drank from that cup,” Cleland says.

In April 1968, with his tour ending, Cleland volunteered once more. He ended up on a rescue mission in the remote village of Khe Sanh, where North Vietnamese troops threatened to overrun thousands of stranded Marines. Cleland’s assignment was to help install a radio relay station. After ferrying in the equipment, he decided to oversee the setup, then have a beer with friends. He noticed a hand grenade on the ground. Figuring it fell off his belt, he reached for it. Cleland was less than a foot away when the grenade exploded.

“The blast jammed my eyeballs back into my skull, temporarily blinding me,” he wrote in a 1980 memoir. “When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone. Nothing but a splintered white bone protruded from my shredded elbow . . . Then I tried to stand but couldn’t. I looked down. My right leg and knee were gone. My left leg was a soggy mass of bloody flesh mixed with green fatigue cloth.”

The explosion not only severed his limbs, it sent Cleland into a spiral of self-doubt and personal recrimination—"stupid, stupid, stupid,” he chastised himself, over and over, for more than 30 years. Finally, a witness came forward and told him the grenade had belonged to another soldier, who triggered the blast by straightening the pin before it slipped off his belt.

Cleland was lucky to survive—he needed more than 40 pints of blood and spent 18 months in rehabilitation—and lucky to live the full life he has. Early on, a doctor told one of Cleland’s close friends that just getting dressed in the morning would use up all his energy for the day. (Cleland already has exceeded the life expectancy for someone with such severe injuries.)

After spending time in a physical therapy clinic, he returned home to Georgia in June 1969 and moved in with his parents. He had “no job, no girlfriend, no car, no hope.” Then, as now, campaigning became a part of his recovery.

Like so many of his generation, Cleland was heeding the summons of President John F. Kennedy, who showed how politics could channel that youthful desire to do good. Cleland had been swept up by the Camelot mystique during his Washington semester when he caught a glimpse of Kennedy and toured the Oval Office days before the president’s assassination. But there also was a less altruistic reason for Cleland’s career choice.

“Everyone used to introduce me and say"—here his voice becomes a bright sing-song—” 'Well, Max could have stayed home and collected disability compensation and de dah de dah de dah and instead he got out and whatever, whatever.’ The truth of the matter is forcing myself to get out and run and introduce myself to people—even though I felt very embarrassed about not having legs and stuff—just doing it over and over and over, I kind of worked through a lot of those barriers and restraints. It kind of helped bring me out.”

In 1970, at age 28, Cleland became the youngest person ever elected to the Georgia state Senate. Seven years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him head of the Veterans Administration, where he expanded community counseling programs and pushed the federal government to recognize the human toll from the herbicide Agent Orange. In 1982, he was elected Georgia’s secretary of state, and during his tenure he routinely won the highest vote totals of any statewide official.

In 1995, when a U.S. Senate seat opened up, it seemed like the chance of a lifetime, a career-capper in a state with a tradition of electing long-serving, deeply revered lawmakers. Besides, Cleland jokes, life in the Senate appeared to suit him.

He realized early on he “wouldn’t jump on a Harley and ride off in the sunset [or] make a living as a track star. I had to use my mind and emotion and passion and conviction about what I believe in. In many ways that’s the job of a United States senator.”

Cleland won a close, hard-fought election, edging a millionaire entrepreneur who outspent him 2 to 1. Once he got to Washington, the Senate proved to be the best job he’d ever had, with freedom to roam the world and indulge his curious mind. His chief mission was “looking after the troops,” Cleland says, and he relished his seat on the Armed Services Committee.

In some ways, though, it is the companionship and creature comforts that Cleland seems to miss the most. He never married, never had children. His apartment in the Washington suburbs was a classic bachelor pad filled with functional rent-a-furniture, down to the pictures on the wall. His true home was his Senate office, and he smiles describing his desk—the same one his political hero, Georgia’s Richard Russell, used—"with my little pictures of Churchill, Roosevelt and the quotes I like. No carpet. Wood floor. Bathroom-accessible.”

But looking back now, with the taste of defeat still sour in his mouth, Cleland wonders if going to Washington wasn’t a terrible mistake. “I’ve had beaucoup doubts that I did the right thing, that I ever left a safe seat back in Georgia, where I was generally happy,” he says, as another campaign day winds down. “I’ve felt several times over the last year and a half that I screwed up my life big time by running for the Senate.”

The announcer is earnest and anxious. A single piano chord sounds over and over. “As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity. But that’s not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland has voted against the president’s vital homeland security efforts 11 times. Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead, but the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading.”

For the first three seconds of the 30-second spot the television screen is filled with four boxes. Two show U.S. troops and military hardware. The one on the upper left shows Osama bin Laden, staring off-screen. The one on the lower right shows Saddam Hussein shaking hands with one of his generals.

Democrats say the ad, broadcast in mid-October 2002, was an unconscionable smear. “One of the two or three nastiest political ads of all time,” says Robert Gibbs, who served as spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 2002 elections.

Republicans say it was a tough but fair spot, and Democrats are just whining because they lost the race. “I’m sorry, it’s politics,” says Scott Howell, who served as media consultant for Saxby Chambliss, the Republican congressman who beat Cleland. (Howell did not, however, produce that particular spot. The consultant who did, Tom Purdue, declined to comment.) “If you don’t want to get attacked on your voting record,” Howell says, “don’t vote that way.”

In fact, Cleland had joined numerous Democrats in voting repeatedly against the homeland security bill that Republicans brought before Congress, part of a dispute over civil service protections that new federal employees would enjoy. It also was true that Chambliss—like President Bush—had initially opposed creation of a Department of Homeland Security before changing his mind. (The fact that Chambliss had never served in the military, thanks to multiple deferments, further rankled Democrats, who were joined by two Republican Vietnam vets, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, in denouncing the ad.)

Although Cleland was favored heading into his reelection campaign, he always had been one of the more vulnerable Democrats in the Senate. Georgia, like the rest of the South, had become increasingly Republican since Cleland first ran in 1996. And although he split with fellow Democrats on several high-profile votes, including Bush’s first tax cut and the resolution to go to war with Iraq, Cleland sided with his congressional colleagues more than 80% of the time. (His record stood out even more when compared with that of Georgia’s other U.S. senator, Democrat Zell Miller, who repeatedly sided with Bush and has since endorsed his reelection.)

“No senator in Georgia ever voted with the Democratic Party that much in recent years,” says Merle Black, who teaches political science at Atlanta’s Emory University. “When he did that, he began to be perceived by moderate-to-conservative white voters in Georgia as more of a liberal Democrat than a centrist Democrat. You don’t win election in Georgia running as a liberal Democrat.”

Cleland was forced on the defensive on a number of social issues, including abortion, gay rights and the “morning-after” birth control pill. He fought back by attacking Chambliss on education and Social Security. But national security and terrorism were the big issues, with memories of the Sept. 11 attacks still raw.

And Chambliss had Bush on his side at a time when the president enjoyed a 70% approval rating in Georgia. Cleland was running on the same ticket as Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who seemingly had antagonized just about every voter group his party needed to win in Georgia: blacks, environmentalists, teachers, good-government types.

Among Republicans, rural white males were perhaps angriest of all, furious over Barnes’ efforts to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag. Sensing opportunity, the White House helped to mobilize those conservative voters in a sophisticated turnout operation (which Republicans hope to replicate across the country in November).

The Senate race wasn’t even close, with Chambliss prevailing 53% to 46%. “I thought, ‘Well, something’s happened, something’s gone wrong with the compilation of numbers,’ ” says Ross, who frequently traveled with Cleland and became engaged to him soon after his defeat. She went to bed certain that election officials would call to correct their mistake. The reality sank in the next morning, Ross says, after “waking up and the phone didn’t ring during the night.”

And yet in the strange way that life and politics sometimes work, Cleland’s defeat built him up at the same time it tore him down. In the popular telling, he is the triple-amputee Vietnam vet who lost because he was morphed into Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein by a White House that stops at nothing to win. Never mind that it’s not quite true. “It’s the seminal event of 2002 that people remember,” Gibbs says of the “Osama” ad, as it has come to be called. “And now Democrats across the country are fighting back.”

Last fall, during the desperate days when few gave his candidacy much hope, Kerry would sometimes get a call on his cellphone from Cleland. Don’t give up, each would tell the other.

After months of paralyzing depression, Cleland had slowly begun to reemerge from his election defeat, starting as a teacher with the Semester Program at Washington’s American University. It was the same program Cleland had attended 40 years earlier as a young man seeking an outlet for his idealism. Lecturing once a week—or, more accurately, regaling his students with old political war stories—became a kind of therapy for the unemployed ex-senator.

One day in the spring of 2003, Jim Jordan, manager of Kerry’s presidential campaign, called Cleland and invited him to lunch. “I asked him what he was prepared to give the campaign,” says Jordan, who has since left the Kerry camp in a staff shake-up. “He warned me he was going through a rough patch and didn’t have the strength or the energy to do a whole lot. Happily, he underestimated himself.”

When the summer semester ended, Cleland threw his body and soul behind Kerry, barnstorming through the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire and rallying others with his energetic example. At one point, when just about all the political experts had written off Kerry, the head of his Iowa campaign, John Norris, put Cleland on a statewide phone hook-up with staffers and volunteers. “He told people to hang in there, to remember what we were fighting for and told them we could win this thing,” Norris recalls. “He was an inspiration, especially during the down days.”

But Cleland and the veterans he helped pull to Kerry’s side provided more than a morale boost. They were crucial to his victory in Iowa, which proved to be the pivotal contest of the Democratic primary fight. (Anecdotal evidence suggests as many as half the Kerry supporters in certain precincts were veterans.) And vets continue to play a vital role as Kerry works to broaden his support for the general election. Indeed, no presidential candidate in the last 40 years has wrapped himself so tightly in green khaki.

Veterans are on hand to greet Kerry and see him off at virtually every campaign stop. His stump speech regularly refers to his military service, and members of the Swift boat Kerry skippered in Vietnam have appeared in TV spots and campaigned across the country on his behalf.

Kerry strategists have set a goal to recruit 1 million veterans as active supporters by November, an effort that is unprecedented for either major party. “We found in the primaries that a vet calling a vet was different” from the standard political outreach effort, says John Hurley, who is leading Kerry’s recruitment drive. “It’s like a friend talking to a friend.”

Recent history suggests that a candidate’s military service—or lack thereof—is a non-issue for most voters, including veterans. In 1992, vets were split evenly between Bill Clinton—who famously avoided the draft—and President George H.W. Bush—who was decorated for combat valor in World War II. In 1996, Clinton easily defeated Robert Dole, another decorated World War II vet. In 2000, George W. Bush prevailed over a pair of Vietnam vets—McCain in the primaries and Democrat Al Gore in the general election—despite questions about Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

But Kerry’s strategy is about more than courting veterans. Privately, his aides concede that Bush probably will carry the veterans’ vote, given the traditional Republican advantage on national security issues. More important is the message that Kerry hopes to send with his cordon of old soldiers. Together, they form an implicit honor guard intended to convey toughness, character and a capacity to serve as wartime commander in chief.

Norris, now head of Kerry’s national field operation, describes them as “validators.”

Bush did much the same thing in 2000, when he campaigned among blacks and Latinos and turned his nominating convention into a multiracial pageant, not so much to win a majority of ethnic support but rather to appeal to centrist voters as a “compassionate conservative.”

Spotlighting his Vietnam service “helps sell Kerry in Wal-Mart America,” says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who studies public opinion on military issues. “How many Wal-Mart shoppers went to Yale? How many Wal-Mart shoppers are in the Senate? Not many. But being a veteran, that provides a connection. Even if you’re not going to win that subgroup, it can make Kerry more human.’'

Max Cleland lives life with great gusto. “When you come back from war,” he says, “every day is an extra-credit day.” He laughs from the belly up, sweats when he campaigns hard and brings a voracious appetite to the table. At a coffee shop in Seattle, breakfast consists of oatmeal with bananas and raisins, eggs, bacon and a hubcap-size pancake slathered with berries, extra butter and syrup. He says grace before the meal, something he does even when he isn’t feeling particularly blessed. “I’ve prayed for the ability to experience the joy that life has every day, even when I’m not feeling it,” he says.

His purpose, he states repeatedly, is to help other Democrats, to “turn my pain into someone else’s gain.” It is one of the many aphorisms and little self-help squibs that Cleland collects, the way another person might seek exotic stamps or gather rare coins. They sound hokey, except that Cleland seems to cling to their inspiration so utterly.

He arrives at breakfast in Seattle with a quote, something else he collects. Over the course of an hour, he will cite Shakespeare, Helen Keller, Rudyard Kipling, John Kenneth Galbraith and, repeatedly, John F. Kennedy. But the quote he brought especially for the occasion comes from retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, whose book told the story of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry in Ia Drang, one of the first U.S. battles of Vietnam. The book was made into a movie, “We Were Soldiers,” which Cleland calls the best film made about that divisive conflict. “He said his book was not a war story, but a love story,” Cleland explains.

And so, Cleland says, is his campaign on behalf of Kerry, Knowles and the other Democrats he calls his “band of brothers.” It is not a political story, but a love story.* * * * *
Mark Z. Barabak covers politics for The Times. He last wrote for the magazine about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.