Tonight, he’ll take the stage in one of the most coveted of convention roles to introduce the party’s nominee for president, a man he calls his "brother and closest personal friend, " John Kerry.
"It’s a miracle, " Cleland says of the journey. “No, it’s beyond a miracle.”
And it’s a part of what he calls his personal resurrection.
Tears with veterans
His return to the political forefront has been hammered out in the coffee shops and church basements he has visited to spread Kerry’s message. In all, Cleland has visited more than 20 states on his friend’s behalf. He sheds tears with fellow veterans and shakes his fist at President Bush’s policies. Nearly everywhere he goes, he is met with applause and hugs.
Cleland has spent a whirlwind week in Boston, speaking at delegate breakfasts and veterans' events. One of the most recognizable figures at the convention, he pauses only long enough to receive the frequent good wishes of Democrats who view him as a symbol of patriotism and of Republican dirty politics.
His speech tonight, he says, will be the culmination of months on the campaign trail for Kerry, “a personal story about how my life and his life crossed paths.”
The road has not been without its bumps.
Cleland spent days crisscrossing Iowa in January. He kept to a grueling schedule even after breaking his hand when he fell out of bed during a violent coughing spell. His wheelchair broke down. But he pressed on, with two Kerry staffers by his side, making dozens of appearances in far-flung towns and veterans' halls.
As Kerry claimed his first important win on the night of the Iowa caucuses, he and Cleland shared a victory embrace on stage.
Their bond had been forged in the U.S. Senate over their shared Vietnam experience.
“We talked about life and war and the aftermath, '' Cleland says. ''I came to realize what a special guy he was.”
‘They’ll go after you’
When Cleland battled to retain his Senate seat in 2002, Kerry and other Vietnam vets in Congress rallied around him. They cried foul when Cleland’s Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, ran an ad that showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and challenged Cleland’s record on homeland security. Chambliss later pulled the ad.
The race gained national attention, and Bush visited Georgia five times to stump for Chambliss. While Cleland had been favored in opinion polls going into Election Day, the outcome wasn’t even close. He and his staff were shocked and devastated.
After the crushing loss, Cleland went to Kerry’s office. "We shared some tears, " he says. And a bruised Cleland offered Kerry a warning.
"They’ll do to you what they did to me, " he told Kerry. “They’ll go after you, your family, your life. . . . They’re gonna try to kill you, blow you up.”
Kerry’s response delighted Cleland: "He looked at me and said, ‘But somebody’s gotta fight.’ "
In the following few months, Cleland struggled to find a purpose. He proposed marriage to longtime companion Nancy Ross during a trip to the Virgin Islands, and they are now engaged. But the depression and self-doubt lingered. He spent a lot of time reading his Bible and re-evaluating his life.
He took a job teaching politics in American University’s Washington Semester program, hosting weekly lectures. It was the same program that brought him to the nation’s capital while a student at Florida’s Stetson University in 1963.
When the Kerry campaign asked him to join up in the spring of 2003, Cleland declared that he would “fight until the last dog died.”
As the head of the Kerry "Veterans Brigade, " Cleland made repeated forays into key states, tirelessly working VFW clubs, American Legion halls and any other place the campaign could draw a crowd. While he acknowledges that the constant airport runs and hotel check-ins physically drained him, he says he now feels more emotionally energized than he has in months.
Steve Leeds says it’s a simple equation. "Max needs to be around people, " his friend says. “He feeds off that.”
‘Gimme a hug!’
At a recent lunch at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta, Cleland rolled into the restaurant as a star. Folks stopped to shake his hand. A woman pointed to Cleland’s signed picture hanging on the lobby wall and whispered to a friend, “He’s an important politician.”
With a cellphone attachment in his ear and trailed by an aide and entourage of family and friends, Cleland greeted waitresses and restaurant staffers with his signature “Gimme a hug!” and pulled even strangers in for embraces.
As he talked about struggling with his own political defeat, his cellphone buzzed. It was a local candidate who had been beaten in a primary race, calling Cleland for comfort.
"You’ll come back stronger next time, " Cleland told the caller, whom he declined to name. “I can’t wait to see you so I can hug your neck. I love you, brother.”
Disconnecting, Cleland shook his head.
"The day after an election is always filled with joy and sadness, " he said. “Politics is the art of sudden death.”
For a man who understands how finicky politics, and voters, can be, he’s also a man who refuses to look at the what-ifs after this November. He insists that he doesn’t allow thoughts of Bush’s re-election into his head. And he’s not sure what role he’ll play if Kerry wins.
But it’s clear that the campaign trail has lifted his spirits and his profile. He’s back in the spotlight and being listened to again.
Cleland was the closing speaker Monday at the Democratic Veterans Caucus, which drew more than 1,600 people to a Boston hotel ballroom. Emceed by Democratic strategist and former Marine corporal James Carville, the program also featured Gen. Wesley Clark and several Vietnam veterans who are part of Kerry’s “band of brothers.”
Carville told the gathering that Cleland will go down in history for the injustice he suffered in 2002 at the hands of “Saxby Shameless.”
Recalling the historic battle cries of “Remember the Alamo” and "Remember the Maine, " Carville declared, "We’re going to make a solemn pledge. We’re going to ‘Remember Max.’ "
The raucous, overflow crowd grew quiet when Cleland spoke. "We love you, Max, " someone shouted from the floor.
One of Kerry’s Vietnam swift boat crewmates, Jim Wasser, an electrician from Kankakee, Ill., said the soldiers who served with Kerry would, if asked, volunteer for one last mission and “follow him to hell.”
"We’re not going to hell, " Cleland answered back. “We’ve been to hell. We’re going to the White House.”
Staff writers Tom Baxter and Moni Basu contributed to this article.
This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 29, 2004.