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Max Cleland: Deceptive Democratic Warrior By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, July 29, 2004


Max Cleland is “a guy who lost three limbs in Vietnam, left them on the battlefield,” said Vietnam veteran and Senator John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who chose this former U.S. Senator from Georgia to introduce him as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate at its 2004 National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts.

Just prior to the start of the Convention, Cleland told reporters that Kerry’s opponent, had “flat-out lied” to gain congressional authorization for the War in Iraq. He accused the President of launching the war to “be Mr. Macho Man” because “he concluded that his daddy [President George H.W. Bush] was a failed president” for not removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.

 

Joseph Maxwell Cleland was born in 1942 near Atlanta and earned a B.A. from Stetson University in 1964 and a Masters in History from Emory University in 1965. An army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet at Stetson, Cleland entered the U.S. Army in 1965 as a Second Lieutenant and in 1967 at age 25 volunteered for duty in Vietnam. He was promoted there to Captain, and was awarded the Bronze Star and Silver Star.

 

On April 8, 1968, an exploding hand grenade destroyed Cleland’s two legs, right arm and fingers on his left hand. After prolonged treatment “in various Army and Veterans Administration hospitals,” he testified in 1969 on the difficulties faced by returning Vietnam veterans before the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

 

In 1970, Cleland was elected to the Georgia State Senate, the start of a 33-year career in public service. He worked on the staff of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee 1975-77, then was made Administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration by President Jimmy Carter and served 1977-81. Cleland was Georgia Secretary of State 1982-96, and during his tenure implemented “Motor Voter,” which increased the number of registered Democratic voters.

 

Cleland in 1996 ran unopposed in the Democratic primary to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Senator Sam Nunn. With backing from incumbent Democratic President Bill Clinton, in the general election he eked out a 49-to-48-percent victory over a Republican businessman, winning because a Democrat-controlled state legislature had changed prior election laws that a cycle earlier would have required a run-off. Cleland in a 1996 run-off against an undivided conservative vote would have lost and never become a Senator.

 

While Georgia’s voters were shifting from being conservative Democrats to conservative Republicans, Senator Cleland chose to be a leftwing Democrat on many issues. By 1999, the left-wing Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rated his voting record as 100 percent on the left side of legislation. Representing a Southern state, he voted for tougher gun controls and against a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, viewed by its critics as infanticide. He voted to allow public school clinics to give children morning-after abortifacient pills without parental permission. He opposed an amendment to ban aid to schools that barred the Boy Scouts.

 

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush won Georgia by a landslide 55-43 margin over Democrat Al Gore. It was evident that Senator Cleland, who had taken the dinosaur path to extinction by voting far to the left of his fellow Georgians, had almost zero chance of being re-elected in 2002. But rather than moderate his positions, Cleland voted against confirmation of former Senator John Ashcroft to be Attorney General. He even voted against ending the discriminatory income tax burden on married couples known as the “marriage penalty.” Cleland also voted 22 times “to gut or delay the Bush tax cut,” noted the Wall Street Journal.  As a politician, he took thousands of dollars from radical “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, who openly sided with the Communist enemy in the Vietnam war. Even though Cleland had served as a soldier overseas and his 2002 opponent had not, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) cited Cleland’s weak voting record on national security and endorsed Cleland’s Republican opponent Congressman Saxby Chambliss.

 

In 2002, Cleland ran for a second Senate term with all the advantages of incumbency and as a Democrat in what for more than a century had been a solidly-Democratic state. He spent more than $10 million, a third more money than his Republican opponent but lost by a Georgia landslide, repudiated by voters, 53 percent to 46 percent. He lost not only in rural Georgia, but also in liberal Atlanta.

 

Rather than blame his own leftwing, un-Georgian politics for this humiliating rejection, Cleland declared that he had lost because President Bush came into Georgia five times to campaign against him. His personal vendetta against the President was evident in Cleland’s venomous statements on the eve of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

 

“I hope Max is getting some sweet revenge,” Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, leader of the Democratic minority, told the New York Times. This was ironic because the final nail in Cleland’s political coffin had been the accusation that in Congress he acted as far-Left Daschle’s “hand puppet.” Evidence of this was that Cleland voted 11 times against the Homeland Security measures co-authored by Georgia’s more moderate, more popular Democratic Senator Zell Miller. Like Daschle, Cleland rejected this legislation to safeguard America from another 9/11 terrorist attack because organized labor opposed it. Union bosses insisted that the bill be altered to deny the President of the United States the power to assign security personnel where needed, a power contrary to traditional union control over the workplace.

 

Unable to justify his votes or get voter support for his positions, Cleland also blamed a Saxby Chambliss TV spot that he claimed impugned his patriotism for his defeat. The Democratic chorus endlessly repleated this claim citing the ad as an example of Republican’s low campaign tactics. The infamous ad opened with brief images of the War on Terror, including a photo of Osama bin Laden. A voiceover intoned: “[Cleland] says he supports President Bush [in the war on terror] at every opportunity, but that’s not the truth.” The ad noted that Senator Cleland had voted 11 times to put the selfish interests of organized labor above the safety of all Americans – a reference to the Democrats’ attempt to unionize airport security workers.

 

Cleland responded to the ad by claiming that his honor as a wounded war veteran had been impugned by a vile Republican smear that linked him to the terrorist mastermind of 9/11.  “This ‘how-dare-you-attack-my-patriotism’ ploy, replete with feigned outrage,” wrote Jim Wooten in the liberal Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “is a device to put Cleland’s voting records off-limits.”

 

Cleland’s evasive claim, widely echoed by Democrats, is absurd.  The ad never morphed bin Laden’s face into Cleland’s nor accused him of serving al-Qaeda. The ad merely connected this terrorist’s image (in the same brief frame with the face of Saddam Hussein and two images of American soldiers) to the terrorist horror of 9/11 to remind voters that more than union privilege and power was at stake. To see and hear a RealPlayer version of Saxby Chambliss’ ad for yourself – instead of relying on Democrat propaganda about it – click the active hyperlink in the story “The Myth of Max Cleland” you can reach by clicking here. 

 

But in the wake of Cleland’s defeat, Democrats unwilling to accept voter rejection of their leftist ideology have turned this excuse into an urban legend about alleged Republican dirty campaigning that sits next to the famed Willy Horton ad on their shelf of demon dolls. Democratic candidate John F. Kerry has repeatedly invoked this “attack” on Cleland’s “patriotism” to demonize Republicans and to anger and motivate Democrats.

 

And pundits of the left such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews have spoken as if Cleland was entitled to this senate seat, presumably because Cleland’s injuries made the position his by right. (By this logic, of course, any veteran who lost all four limbs in Vietnam would be even more entitled to a Senate seat from Georgia and should have supplanted Cleland.)  While interviewing Cleland on Tuesday, Matthews paraphrased Teresa Heinz Kerry’s claim that “the Republican Party…took the Senate seat away from him.” The Republican Party has no such power. Cleland was removed and replaced by the voters, to whom the government and its offices in our democracy ultimately belong.

 

(Today’s power-hungry Democrats have nothing in common with their party’s founder Thomas Jefferson, who when he retired from politics said he regarded leaving public office as a promotion. I have been a servant of the People, said Jefferson, but in private life as one of the People I become the master over these public servants.)

 

Since his 2002 defeat, Max Cleland has been driven not only by a desire for revenge but also by self-interest.  “He really was down,” said David Brown, head of American University’s Washington Semester Program who invited Cleland to teach its students. “He’d had everything – a car, a staff and people who took care of him. Now he didn’t even have an office.”

 

Losing his re-election bid “was the second big grenade in my life,” Cleland told Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson in 2003. “It blew me up. It happened very quickly and very intensely, and I was left with virtually nothing but my life.” The once-happy Cleland, wrote Carlson became depressed and “remained morose and despondent for months,” despite his proposal of marriage to girlfriend Nancy Ross in the Virgin Islands the day after the election.

 

“Politics has been his salvation,” wrote New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolbert last February about Cleland. After the hand grenade shattered his life in 1968, Cleland spent nearly a third of a century climbing the ladder to ever-more important political positions, each of which provided him with a staff, handsome income, more and more power, privileges and purpose. Being a U.S. senator, he has said, was his “dream job.” Losing that pinnacle was a nightmare. And President Bush’s gracious appointment of the defeated Democrat as a Director of the Export-Import Bank of the United States did little to satisfy his ambition or to soften his spite and hatred for the Republican President who helped defeat him.

 

His former colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran Senator Kerry’s presidential nomination has opened a new door of opportunity for Cleland. The Kerry campaign uses him to demonize President Bush and Republicans, and to elicit emotional sympathy from both leftists and moderates that can be transferred to the cold, unsympathetic Kerry. Cleland is again in the spotlight, a reborn star on the political stage. He is again important, pampered, feted, prosperous and showered with ego gratification. And if Cleland helps elect Kerry, who knows what jobs, money or other benefits have been secretly promised as quid pro quo for his endorsement of Kerry and damning of President Bush?

 

“Cleland’s image as Bush’s ultimate victim suits Kerry’s campaign all too well,” wrote Michael Crowley of the pro-Kerry New Republic. “There are no bold new ideas in the Democratic Party today, no coherent policy themes…. What does define and unify the party is a sense of victimhood – and a lust for revenge. Cleland is compelling not because of anything he’s done – he was a mediocre senator and a clumsy candidate – but because of what was done to him. His consignment to a wheelchair only heightens this sentiment. The wheelchair itself is a metaphor for his political trauma….”

 

“What Cleland brings to Kerry’s campaign,” continued Crowley, “is the emotional power of victimization – a throwback to the worst of old-time Democratic Party politics, to its emphasis on victimhood over ability and virtue. But whereas in the past it was specific interest groups – minorities, women, gays – who were the noble victims, today it is the Democratic Party itself. Cleland is a reminder to fellow Democrats that they have spent the past three years being persecuted and that it’s time to start avenging their humiliations…. But eventually Kerry will have to stand for something more than Bush hatred and payback. Revenge is not a campaign platform.”

 

Being an attack dog for Kerry involves hard work and exhausting travel, but it clearly has renewed Cleland’s sense of purpose and self-importance. It also requires his skills as a veteran politician to duck hard questions about Kerry’s dishonesty. On one New York City radio show, for example, Cleland had to defend Kerry’s refusal to release all his medical records from Vietnam – records that, among other things, might reveal that the three Purple Hearts Kerry received were for tiny, superficial and even questionable wounds that scarcely warranted such honor. Those three Purple Hearts allowed Kerry to return to the U.S. after serving in Vietnam for only six months.

 

Democrats tout the Silver and Bronze Stars won by both Kerry and Cleland in Vietnam. But they prefer not to mention that, despite losing two legs and an arm to a hand grenade, Cleland was never awarded even one Purple Heart. The reason, as columnists Ann Coulter and Mark Steyn were widely attacked for pointing out, is that Cleland’s horrible injuries did not happen in combat, as Kerry tries to suggest with his deceitfully-crafted phrase about Cleland leaving his limbs “on the battlefield.”

 

This terrible accident happened not on a battlefield but on a helicopter pad 15 miles away from combat. Cleland stepped out of a helicopter to go have a beer with buddies, saw a hand grenade on the ground, assumed that he had dropped it and picked the explosive device up. It had been dropped by another, inexperienced soldier who had left the weapon on a hair trigger setting. It detonated, devastating Cleland’s 25-year-old body and in an instant changing his life.

 

In the 1986 edition of his autobiography Strong at the Broken Places, Cleland wrote of his receiving the Soldier’s Medal “for allegedly shielding my men from the grenade blast and the Silver Star for allegedly coming to the aid of wounded troops….”

 

“There were no heroics on which to base the Soldier’s Medal,” wrote Cleland on page 87. “And it had been my men who took care of the wounded during the rocket attack, not me. Some compassionate military men had obviously recommended me for the Silver Star, but I didn’t deserve it.” (Emphasis added.) Two pages later he added: “I was not entitled to the Purple Heart either, since I was not wounded by enemy action.” (Emphasis added.) 

 

But today Cleland, who once exhibited candor and thus courage, now lets it slide when introduced by Democrat apparatchiks as having left his limbs “on the battlefield.” The reason, apparently, is that Cleland believes he is still there. The Washington Post quotes him giving this description of Washington politics to students at American University: “In so many ways, it’s combat. Sometimes it’s low-level combat, sometimes it’s high-level. Sometimes you’re the target, sometimes you’re targeting somebody else. It’s a target-rich environment, as they say in the military.” The New York Times quotes Cleland promising Kerry that if the Massachusetts senator ran for president “I’m there with you in the foxhole, until the last dog dies.”

 

Cleland once said that if no grenade had maimed him in Vietnam, he would have “probably been some frustrated history teacher teaching American government at some junior college.” He could have easily drawn different historical lessons from the Vietnam War, begun when Democrat President John F. Kennedy committed the first 16,000 armed troops and continuing under Democrat President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the time Cleland’s life was changed by that hand grenade in April 1968. Cleland could also have learned that America’s war with terrorists began when Democrat President Jimmy Carter encouraged the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. This betrayal of a key ally of the U.S. and Israel in the Middle East installed terrorist-supporting Islamist fanatics in Teheran. It begat a Soviet invasion and an Osama bin Laden organization called Al Qaeda in Afghanistan next door, and it precipitated an Iran-Iraq War that claimed half a million lives and fueled the arms and ambitions of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps that would have changed his outlook and foreign policy approach...and made him more electable in modern Georgia.

 

In Cleland’s targeting of President Bush, winning is all the matters. All is fair in hate and war, and Cleland honors no Geneva Convention requirement to fight clean and speak only truth. He is again a warrior in combat against an ideological enemy, cynically manipulating his life and the natural human sympathy of those who see him as what he hopes will be politically-lethal weapons against the President of the United States.

 

But as United States senators, both Kerry and Cleland voted to authorize the War in Iraq on the basis of the same classified intelligence President Bush had seen. Both voted to send young soldiers, as they once were, to war. The great Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Cleland apparently believes that politics and war are extensions of one another.

 


Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.


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