Former Sen. Max Cleland Dies At 79, Can Now Haunt Rick Wilson In Person
Former US Senator Max Cleland went into politics in Georgia in 1970, winning election to the state Senate less than three years after a grenade dropped by a fellow soldier in Vietnam nearly killed him. The explosion blew off both of Cleland's legs and his right arm, and he needed a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Jimmy Carter appointed Cleland in 1977 to be administrator of the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs), and after that Cleland served as Georgia's secretary of state, and when Sam Nunn retired from the Senate, Cleland won his seat in 1996.
In 2002, Cleland lost his reelection bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss, thanks in part to one of the sleaziest campaign ads in history, which suggested Cleland was soft on terrorism. Much more about that later.
But first, genuine thanks — the non-snarky kind for once — to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for reminding us that Ken Burns and Lynne Novick chose Cleland to be the first voice heard in their 2017 PBS documentary The Vietnam War. Citing Gordon Allport (not, it turns out, Friedrich Nietzsche or Viktor Frankl), Cleland says,
"To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in suffering." And for those of us who suffered because of Vietnam, that's been our quest ever since.
The Journal-Constitution adds that despite his participation in the documentary, Cleland "told friends that he could not bring himself to watch the entire 18-hour series — the memory was still too raw."
Cleland died Tuesday at his home in Atlanta, from congestive heart failure. He was 79.
Cleland's father had joined the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, so Cleland felt he needed to be part of his own generation's war, joining the Army in 1965 and then volunteering for Vietnam in 1967. On April 8, 1968, not long before his tour was set to end, Cleland was on a routine non-combat mission to install a radio relay transmitter near Khe Sanh. We'll go with the Journal-Constitution's description of the accident that he somehow survived:
[As] he exited a helicopter, he saw a live grenade that had been dropped on the ground. He bent to pick it up with his right hand, intending to toss it quickly away, and was shattered by its blast.
A Marine named David Lloyd was the first to reach him, using his ammunition belt as a tourniquet for what was left of Cleland's left leg.
For more than 30 years, Cleland thought the grenade had fallen off his own web belt and blamed his own carelessness. But in 1999, Lloyd reached out to him after seeing Cleland describe his injuries on CNN's "Larry King Live," and told him the grenade had dropped from the belt of an unnamed private exiting the chopper with him — a "newbie." On Cleland's 50th "Alive Day," the anniversary name he gave to that day that transformed him, Lloyd was an invited guest. Cleland gave him an ammunition belt to replace the one he had given up in 1968.
The Washington Post notes that after Cleland was evacuated from the scene, he "spent five hours in surgery and received more than 40 pints of blood before being sent to Walter Reed, where he underwent eight months of rehab." He experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and was all of 25 years old.
In 1970, Cleland won election to the Georgia state Senate, becoming its youngest ever member; that was followed by an unsuccessful 1974 run for lieutenant governor, after which he moved to Washington to take a staff job with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Carter appointed him to head the VA in 1976, and while he was in the job, VA doctors formally recognized PTSD as a service-connected condition.
We'll jump ahead to Cleland's single term in the Senate, where he was one of those socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrats; he served on the Armed Services Committee and was a reliable voice for veterans and a fierce advocate for disability rights. In the run-up to the 2002 election, he voted to authorize George W. Bush's war in Iraq, which he later said was the greatest regret of his career.
Cleland also vehemently opposed Bush's push to deny civil service and union organizing rights in the proposed Department of Homeland Security, and like most Senate Dems, voted against authorizing the new department unless workers had rights.
The 2002 Smear Campaign Against Cleland
That was all the excuse needed for the campaign of his GOP opponent, Saxby Chambliss (who'd avoided Vietnam with that old favorite, a high school football injury) to commence the ratfucking. Bush adviser Karl Rove scraped up Republican attack-ad expert Rick Wilson — yes, the glib anti-Trump pundit who's always on cable news today — to create an ad to rival Jesse Helms's infamous 1990 "White Hands" spot or the equally evil 1988 Willie Horton ad aired against Michael Dukakis. Look at this garbage:
The ad opens with images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, as a narrator reminds 2002 Americans what a scary world we live in, with terrorists and dictators and tense generic scary music. Cleland, the ad says, claims he has "the courage to lead," and "says he supports President Bush at every opportunity." But not so, the ad accuses: Cleland had "voted against the President's vital Homeland Security efforts 11 times!" They were all on amendments to the DHS authorization, and of course the ad doesn't mention they were about protecting employees' labor rights. 11 times!
Well gosh, forget his Silver Star and Bronze Star medals: Why is Max Cleland so in love with terrorists anyway?
The ad met with outrage, including from Republican Vietnam vets in the Senate like John McCain and Chuck Hagel, and was eventually pulled from TV. The New York Times notes that the perception that the ad was primarily responsible for Cleland's loss (46 percent to 53 percent) to Chambliss may not be correct, since Cleland had already been slipping in the polls before it aired. The Washington Post also points out that Cleland may have suffered collateral damage from white rightwing backlash to Democratic Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who had removed the Confederate battle flag from Georgia's state flag. They were very upset about heritage, you know.
But the ad certainly set the tone for future Republican political advertising, right up to that hilarious little tweet this week from Rep. Paul Gosar featuring an anime version of Gosar killing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Since then, Wilson has insisted again and again it was totally inaccurate to suggest the ad had called Cleland soft on terrorism, or linked him with bin Laden, or questioned his patriotism, because after all, the text of the ad never said any of that. (He once said Yr Doktor Zoom got the details wrong, even, back in 2015, because I'd said the ad had depicted Cleland "as a terrorist sympathizer." I guess Wilson had a point. The ad simply shows two hated terror guys, says Cleland voted against Homeland Security, and lets the viewer do all the assuming. See how much better that is?)
Wilson even bragged to HuffPost in 2015 about what a genius piece of work the ad was, noting that while "everyone around the table knew there was going to be a Democratic shitstorm about it" and "John McCain lost his mind about it," that was OK: "But look, the ad moved numbers."
He was quite proud of his craft, in fact:
The ad was built ugly. The ad was built to look like it was primitive and quick and knocked off instantaneously. It is an ugly ad. It is a hideously looking ad because we wanted people to focus on [Cleland's DHS authorization] votes.
The mechanism itself is pretty simple and basic. We knew back then that saying the words 'against the president's vital homeland security efforts' [would work]. At the time, George Bush had about a 68 or 64 percent approval rating in Georgia. Solid gold, OK?
As for Cleland, Friend of Wonkette Charlie Pierce notes that the ad "triggered a dormant case of PTSD, and Cleland spun into a deep depression." Pierce cites an interview Cleland gave history.net when he published his 2009 memoir, Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove. Writing the memoir, Cleland said, became
part of my own therapy, my own healing. Those of us who suffer need to talk about it and write about it. I didn't really have a connection to the suffering of those who have what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder [...] in which you never quite get over what's happened to you, but you move on. But after I lost the Senate race in 2002, my life collapsed. I went down in every way you can go down. I lost my life as I knew it.
It took me right back to Vietnam, right back to the battlefield, right back to the wounding. And I had to work through all that stuff. It took me years of counseling and years on medication, and it's been several years of just writing. I had to make sense of it all.
Pierce adds. "It never made any sense. It was destruction for destruction's sake. [...] Max Cleland didn't deserve this, and the fact that it worked proved American politics didn't deserve Max Cleland."
Eventually, Cleland returned to public life, campaigning in 2004 for fellow Vietnam vet Sen. John Kerry, who was himself attacked as insufficiently patriotic, because everyone knows Republicans love America and Democrats are weak. For good measure, Ann Coulter viciously suggested that Cleland's injuries were no big deal, since after all, he wasn't in battle and could have just as well been blown up by a grenade at a stateside base.
In 2009, Barack Obama appointed Cleland to his final government job, as secretary of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, which operates and maintains US military cemeteries and memorials outside the US. You know, like the World War I cemeteries in France that Donald Trump couldn't be bothered to visit on a rainy day, and besides, anyone who'd die in a war or get their limbs blown off is a loser. Cleland himself had left the job at the end of Barack Obama's term, and Trump left the position empty for nearly a year after that. Not really a priority.
Oh, did we get partisan there in an obituary for a war hero? Gosh, how very uncivil of us.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.