From the jungles of Vietnam to the inner sanctum of the U.S. Senate, Max Cleland '68G-'79H has fought despair and disability to emerge triumphant
By John D. Thomas
On Easter Sunday, 1969, Max Cleland lay in a bed in the Veterans Administration hospital in Washington, D.C. One year earlier, while serving in the Army during the Vietnam War, a grenade explosion had ripped his young, fit body to shreds. He lost both legs and his right arm in the blast. The hospital ward was nearly empty that evening, and Cleland used the solitude to contemplate his future.
"Bitterness raged in me . . . ," Cleland wrote in his autobiography, Strong at the Broken Places. "As I lay there alone, the futility of my life bore in on me. What was I living for? To get myself together every morning to go through the pain, anguish, and humiliation of therapy just to do it again the following day? Weekends were reserved for drinking and trying to forget. I wasn't living, I was existing. . . .
"I sank into dark depression. In a deep wrenching of the soul, I lay in bed, convulsed with agonizing, gut-wracking sobs. I was bitter over the past. I was afraid of the future. And the torturous present seemed unbearable. . . . I could live, or I could die. The choice was still up to me."
Max Cleland chose life.
After coming to terms with his injuries, Cleland would embark on a career in public service that would make him Georgia's youngest state senator ever, the head of the Veterans Administration during Jimmy Carter's presidency, Georgia's youngest secretary of state, and, most recently, a newly minted United States senator.
Cleland's swearing in at the U.S. Capitol on January 7 was an emotional experience, and he choked up and cried while addressing a group of supporters after the ceremony. Three weeks later, Cleland, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Emory in 1979, spoke to Emory Magazine in his new, yet-to-be-remodeled office in the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta. The gold dome of the Georgia Capitol gleamed brightly through the panoramic window behind him as he fielded questions. When asked what was running through his mind when he was being sworn in, he said, "Just the incredible feeling that dreams can come true, that our deepest heartfelt desires, believe it or not, sometimes can be met by the grace of God and the help of good friends. I guess [it was] the completion of a thirty-year journey, an odyssey."
Max Cleland was born on August 24, 1942. An only child, he grew up in Lithonia, where his father, Hugh, was an auto parts salesman, and his mother, Juanita, was a secretary. An all-around stand-out in high school, Cleland was awarded the Atlanta Journal Loving Cup in 1960 as the outstanding senior at Lithonia High School.
Cleland attended Stetson University in Deland, Florida, where he majored in history. For one semester he studied in Washington at American University, an experience that would have a major impact on his future. He and several other students visited the Oval Office on a private tour three days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The day Kennedy was killed, Cleland writes in his autobiography, "I felt an overwhelming sense of man's perishability. Yet at the same time I had a sudden, compelling drive to serve my country."
When he returned to Georgia after graduating from Stetson, Cleland volunteered to work on the 1964 congressional campaign of Jim Mackay. A six-term Georgia state congressman who earned his undergraduate degree from Emory in 1940 and his law degree from the University in 1947, Mackay was widely known as a racially progressive Democrat. Cleland describes working on that campaign as "a thrill. I can still remember it, November 1964, nestled in the bottom of a bank building off the Square in Decatur. I celebrated my first political victory, and it was Jim Mackay's."
Cleland says Mackay "remains a mentor and a political and spiritual leader in my life. It was Mr. Mackay who in those days carved out for me in the flesh what politics was all about."
The two men have remained friends, and Mackay says he is not surprised Cleland has reached the heights he has in politics. "Max just appeared at my office in Decatur in 1964. I had not met him before that time," recalls Mackay, who received an honorary degree from Emory in 1986. "He had that same warmth and personality he has today. And Max said, 'I've been following your work in the legislature since I was in the seventh grade, and I like what you've done, and I want to help you get elected.' Straightforward was the word for it. He worked very hard in my campaign."
Mackay is optimistic about the new senator's chances of having a positive impact in Washing-ton. "There is a lot of what I would call depression in this country, and Max Cleland's presence is going to give us a different model of political leadership," he explains. "That is a fella whose life has validated the fact that you can pull out of a depression. Granted, he is an inspiration to any physically disabled person, but Max is also inspiring [to everyone else]. He accentuates the positive. The amazing quality about Max is that if he were sitting in this room, you'd forget that he has any limbs missing. His whole person is there."
During the 1964-65 academic year, Cleland worked on his master's degree in history at Emory. He studied under James Harvey Young, who is now the Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Social History, Emeritus. "He was very pleasant to work with, had a good sense of humor, and had an interest in the welfare of people," comments Young. "I have great hope in his making a contribution of considerable value to our nation in his new role."
Cleland, who wrote his thesis on the origin of consumer research in the 1920s and 1930s, says that Young had a "powerful impact on my life. I had had some exposure to government and politics but not very much. Emory is where I sank my teeth into the great reform movements that have driven American politics this century."
After finishing his course work at Emory, Cleland volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Promoted to the rank of captain in the Army, he worked as a Signal Corps officer helping set up and maintain communications systems in the field and saw action in the bloody battle for control of Khe Sanh. Toward the end of his one-year tour of duty, Cleland was getting off a helicopter when he noticed a grenade had fallen off his vest. Thinking that the pin was still in, he instinctively bent down to pick it up and was rocked by a tremendous explosion.
"The blast jammed my eyeballs back into my skull, temporarily blinding me . . . ," he writes in Strong at the Broken Places. "When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone. . . . 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."
Cleland was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. He had been wounded in Vietnam on April 8, 1968, and he was lying in surgery on June 10 when he was supposed to graduate from Emory and receive his master's degree. "My mother walked down the aisle and got my degree in absentia," he says. "And I told her to nail that sucker on the wall, because when I got home from Walter Reed Hospital I wanted to see that boy up there. So the day I came home in July, there was the master's [degree] up on the wall. And I'll tell ya, I've treasured that ever since."
Cleland had made it home to Lithonia three months after the grenade explosion. A giant banner fluttered across the road in front of his house when he arrived. It read, "WELCOME HOME, MAX!" Cleland, who had been awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service and the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, writes in his autobiography that "I had been given a hero's welcome, but I did not feel like a hero."
Over the next year or so, Cleland's spirits were buoyed by small victories, as he relearned to do things like swim and drive. With his new-found confidence, he decided in 1970 to run for his district's state senate seat. The considerable publicity he had received because of his injuries and war record had made him better known than the Republican incumbent, and he won with 56 percent of the vote, becoming, at age twenty-eight, the youngest member of the Georgia State Senate and its only Vietnam veteran.
Cleland spent four years in the state senate, during which time he wrote Georgia's law mandating that public buildings be accessible to the elderly and the disabled. He also became involved in helping Vietnam veterans who were returning to Georgia. During his two terms as a state legislator, he worked closely with then-Governor Jimmy Carter, and when Carter was elected president in 1976, he named Cleland to head the Veterans Administration. When Cleland met with Carter in the Oval Office on January 20, 1977, to be offered the job, it was only four hours after the President had been sworn in. Cleland would later learn that he was the first official appointment on the president's schedule.
After his stint as head of the Veterans Administration, where he helped to set up centers for Vietnam veterans to receive counseling, Cleland returned to Georgia and ran for secretary of state. He won and in 1982 became the youngest person in Georgia to hold that office. In the decade that followed, he was an advocate for small businesses and helped to set up the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the "motor voter" act, which increased the number of registered voters in the state by nearly one million.
When Emory alumnus Sam Nunn '61C-'62L-'81H announced his decision to retire from the United States Senate after twenty-four years, Cleland decided to run for his seat. He was pitted against wealthy Republican businessman Guy Millner, who would outspend Cleland three to one. Much of the $6 million of his personal fortune that Millner spent on his campaign was used on a series of withering television ads attacking Cleland, who countered with a television endorsement featuring the most powerful name in Georgia politics-President Jimmy Carter.
"I deeply regret the personal attacks being made against Max Cleland," President Carter told Georgia voters. He lauded the candidate's "compassion, competence, and integrity" and said that "Max Cleland will be a breath of fresh air in the Senate, and he will make Georgia proud." Cleland went on to defeat Millner by a minuscule margin. He came away from the experience as an advocate for serious campaign finance reform.
"We need to get the financing of American politics back on track," says Cleland. "The system is broken, it is corrupting, and it is a national scandal. We are spending too much time as candidates chasing money and not enough time relating to people. And that is why the popular estimate of credibility in the American government is now nineteen percent. Back when I was a youngster, it was sixty percent."
During his run for the Senate, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Cleland had shifted politically to the right. The fifty-four-year-old senator bristles mildly at that suggestion, saying that he "never moved to the right. I feel like I'm occupying the center. I like General Colin Powell's phrase, in which he refers to himself as being in the sensible center. Sensible meaning fiscally conservative but with a social conscience. In other words, I do favor a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, I do favor term limits for members of Congress, I do favor a line item veto to cut back on wasteful governmental spending, and I do favor strong campaign financing laws that everyone must meet to regulate money in politics, all as efforts to regain some confidence and credibility of the American people in our system.
"But I also have a social conscience. There are some changes in Medicare and Medicaid and our social programs that we are going to have to make in order to keep them viable, but that is a positive purpose. I'm working hard to keep those programs solvent. I'm not going to be working to undercut them because I know there are people in deep need who require those programs. Since I was sworn in in January of 1971 as a state senator, I have tried to pay particular attention to the young, to the disabled, and to the elderly, because I think the government, whether it's at the state level or the national level, has a particular moral concern about those aspects of our constituency."
Cleland says his priorities will be helping maintain a strong defense, creating measures to support a vigorous economy, and working to restore the faith of people in their government. "And it just so happens that I have wonderful committee assignments that will allow me to work on all three," he says. The new senator will sit on the Armed Services Committee, the Governmental Affairs Committee, and the Small Business Committee.
Cleland says he will be spending a good deal of his time on the Armed Services Committee, examining such issues as the Persian Gulf War illness, sexual harassment, and the quality of health care for military personnel. According to John Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Cleland's practical knowledge of the military is just what the Armed Services Committee needs. "Max is uniquely qualified to understand the needs of service people," Kerry told the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. "It's important to have people with firsthand experience as a part of the committee."
Cleland will also continue as an advocate for the rights of the disabled. He admits that "we've come a long way, but now we have to begin making access available in the private sector. I'm struggling with just finding an apartment in Washington that is wheelchair accessible. So we still have a way to go in terms of making our society totally open to those who have special challenges."
Even though the demands and pressures of his new job will be overwhelming, Cleland says he is ecstatic about the opportunity. "For a long time, I thought the best job I ever had was being a young second lieutenant. Well doggone if I don't think being a member of the United States Senate is the best job I've ever held. Senator Nunn told me, Max, presidents have more power, but senators have more fun."
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