I have known Joseph Maxwell (Max) Cleland for 35 years. I met him when he was the administrator of the Veterans Administration under former President Jimmy Carter. I was working for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and was serving as a consultant on a CBS documentary on disability. CBS wanted to interview Max Cleland. I called his office and asked if we could have 90 minutes and two days later we were in Max’s office.
From our first meeting, Max and I developed a strong bond that I believe has benefited both of us personally, psychologically and spiritually. We have had dozens of lunches and numerous suppers together. We have discussed politics, family, personal demons and religion. He is a man of strong religious beliefs. Over the three plus decades that we have known one another, I have come to honor him as a profile in courage .
Except when Max was a U.S. Senator and people called him Senator, every one that I know who knows him, calls him Max. He was born August 24, 1942 in Georgia. He is a disabled Viet Nam Army veteran. A former captain, his courage earned him the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. The Silver Star is the third-highest combat military decoration that can be awarded to a member of any branch of the United States armed forces for valor in the face of the enemy. The Bronze Star Medal (BSM, or BSV with valor device) is a United States Armed Forces individual military decoration that awarded for bravery, acts of merit, or meritorious service.
Cleland is the only triple amputee that I know. At 25 years of age, Cleland lost both legs above the knee and his right forearm when a dropped live grenade exploded near him.
In the years I have known him, he has never spoken about his medals. He has spoken painfully about the horrors of war. Tears sweep down his face when he recalls the horrors of war. “War! War! Never, never again,” is his creed. He speaks about his military service with pride and strong emotion. He is a proud American and patriot.
Education and public service have always attracted him. His record shows that. He graduated from Stetson University, Central Florida in 1964 and earned a Master’s degree from Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
Aspiring to higher office, following the retirement of Sam Nunn, Cleland ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996 in Georgia and won. I had spoken to him several times during his campaign. He was full of confidence that he would win.
“Being elected to the U.S. Senate was the pinnacle of my political career and life,” Max told me.
I asked Max if during all of his campaigns, if his opponents had ever used his disability against him. “No” was his answer. He credits the people in Georgia for picking ability over disability.
Max was centrist in the Senate. He was staunchly pro-choice and pro-environment. He voted against drilling in ANWR, and opposed Gale Norton's nomination as Secretary of the Interior in 2001. He voted to federalize airport security after 9/11, and supported the war on terror. \He was pro-free trade and voted to normalize trade relations with Vietnam. He backed the authorization to go to war in Iraq. With anger in his voice, he told me years later. “My vote for the Iraq war was the worst vote I ever cast."
Max always asks me about new assistive technology products. I tell him what I know. While he was in the U.S. Senate, I helped install a voice recognition program in his office. Max wanted to use it. I do not know if voice recognition was effective. orted r on terror. Cleland
I saw Max during his years as Senator more times than any time in our relationship. We had many suppers. Each meal started with a prayer. He was a good listener, a wise counselor and a silent confident. Every time I needed his help, I received it in abundance. There were a few times when he asked me for advice.
In 2002 when Max was running for re-lection to the Senate, he was defeated by Saxby Chambliss. It was a dirty campaign. . Some supporters blamed a Chambliss TV ad featuring the likenesses of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while criticizing Cleland's votes against homeland security measures. Cleland supporters claimed the ad questioned the senator's patriotism, while Chambliss supporters claimed it simply questioned his judgment. The ad was removed after protests from Viet Nam veterans, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE).
I saw the ad, and I wanted to vomit. It was disgraceful and represented a new low in politics. The voters in Georgia should be ashamed of themselves. Max was a good senator. He would never disgrace his country. Yet, he was defeated by a man who avoided service during the Viet Nam war.
Max believes a major reason for the Bush administration going after him with a vengeance to defeat him was Max strongly supported unionizing federal employees at the newly established Department of Homeland Security The Bush administration did not want the employees unionized.
Shortly after his defeat, Max went into years of depression. His defeat cost him his home and other possessions. I have talked to him many, many times since his defeat. We have given comfort to each other.
Max has always been concerned about equality for people with disabilities and women. He has deep concerns about caring for veterans and made it a priority to meet veterans to meet them when they visited his office. I met veterans in Max’s office who had praise for Cleland’s efforts to help them and other veterans from Georgia. One veteran told me, “Max is a hero to me and every veteran in Georgia.”
Max is the author of many books, including a terrific autobiography titled Heart of a Patriot – How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed, and Karl Rove, by Max Cleland, with Ben Raines.
I have stuttered most of my life. For decades I have experienced chronic back pain. Two years ago I started dealing with a neuro-muscular challenge that has impacted my walking on my left side and produced some rigidity in my left wrist. Whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I think of Max and his courage. My ailments are minor compared to his. He inspires me to move forward even as he deals with some personal demons. Max Cleland is a personal friend who is, in my opinion, a profile in courage.