Max Cleland discusses war, politics

Writing book was therapy for former senator after loss

Max Cleland is back in the city that brought him so much joy and so much heartache.

Sitting at a scratched-up table at a bookstore coffee shop, his white shirt unbuttoned at the collar and his favorite timepiece — a Mickey Mouse watch — on his only wrist, he seems anything but senatorial.

Less than a decade ago Cleland was just that, at the pinnacle of his political career as a U.S. senator representing his native Georgia. Following stints in Georgia’s state Senate, as secretary of state and as head of the U.S. Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, being a U.S. senator was a job of a lifetime for Cleland, and a job he never wanted to leave.

So when he lost his Senate seat in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss, it did as much damage to him emotionally as the grenade that blew off both his legs and one of his arms as an Army captain in Vietnam.

The depression that followed his election loss would send Cleland to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington — the same place that treated him for his war wounds — for extended treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a new book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove,” Cleland describes his ordeals and how he still struggles with his losses on a day-to-day basis.

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“It’s the story of someone who at least twice has been at the end of his rope,” said Cleland, 67. “Twice in my life I’ve been on the ground bleeding and dying, thinking I was not going to make it — once in war and once in politics.”

In an interview, Cleland, a fixture in Georgia politics who returned to Washington in June with an appointment by President Barack Obama as secretary of the America Battle Monuments Commission, gave his thoughts on his book, his life and politics. Here’s what he had to say, edited for brevity:

Q. So what's it like being back in Washington?

A. This has been my Dickensian city. The best of times and the worst of times I've spent in my life have been right here.

Q. So why this book, and why now?

A. I believe in the author's catharsis. It is therapeutic to get something up and out and down in black and white. Whether you share it with anybody else or not, it is therapeutic. And I knew that therapy was part of my own coming to terms with my own life, my own wounds, both military and political.

Q. Do you really think your emotional spiral after the 2002 election was tied to your wounds in Vietnam?

A. I do. I do. Because ultimately, I realized I was in effect lying on the ground, dying, bleeding to death. And that took me right back to the original trauma, the war trauma.

Q. But every politician knows he or she serves at the whim of voters, right?

A. That's what I now know, which is why I don't plan to offer myself on the ballot again.

ExploreFrom 2004: Max Cleland at the Democratic National Convention

Q. You'll never run for office again?

A. I’m not going to put my name on the ballot again. And the reason is because it’s so much like war to me ... and we don’t control the battlefield — in 2002 the battlefield that got completely out of control.

Q. In what way?

A. You had a president that came down after me, you had Karl Rove who came down and recruited my opposition, you had [former Democratic Gov.] Roy Barnes who took the Confederate emblem off the flag and teed off at least 140,000 white male voters in Georgia [many of whom would vote against Democrats as a result]. I mean, all of the sudden you had in effect the perfect storm. It was Khe Sanh [the Vietnam battle where Cleland lost his limbs], the Tet Offensive and all the stuff going off all over again. It was a sense of helplessness and powerlessness that took me over.

Q. What do you think today of the man who defeated you and took your seat in the Senate, Saxby Chambliss?

A. He's a hard-core Republican. That's what he is and he never pretended to be anything other than that. I don't really have anything against him.

I do have a hell of lot against Karl Rove [who helped manage Chambliss’ campaign against Cleland] because Rove, in a cynical, manipulative way, stood politics on its head. Rove didn’t invent negative campaigning, but he took it to the ultimate level.

Q. How would you describe Georgia's delegation in Congress today?

A. Completely — in terms of Republicans — irrelevant. They have worked themselves into a frazzle, identified with the lunatic right-wing fringe and have marginalized themselves nationally into a Republican Party that has a base only in the South among white voters — period.

They have literally no influence on the federal level — in the House, the Senate or with the president or any of the agencies. They basically ran themselves right off the table in terms of political influence. They’re irrelevant.

Q. I'd guess some could say the same about Georgia's Democrats in Congress, though.

A. The Democrats from Georgia are basically ... congressmen [who] have established themselves in the seniority system in the House. They're gaining seniority in the House by basically getting re-elected.

But we have nobody now from Georgia to take the place of [former U.S. Sens.] Dick Russell, Sam Nunn, Herman Talmadge — shall we say the giants of old. I thought that in going to the Senate I was going to stay there. I wanted to become another Dick Russell, another Sam Nunn, because those guys were the best Georgia had to offer in terms of public service.

Q. The Senate was really your dream job, wasn't it?

A. It became that. Public service is what I do. But the Senate became the dream job, where I had a powerful feeling of relevance. It was my thing and it was what I felt 30 years of politics in Georgia had prepared me for. I felt very complete in that role.

Q. So then what do you do after that?

A. You struggle like hell, you cry, you go down in depression, you struggle for sanity, lose your fiancé in the process, you lose your ability to relate to anything and you wind back up in Walter Reed for counseling for years.

And you ultimately find your way out with a president that acknowledges your service and mentions Khe Sanh in his inauguration address. And then he appoints me June 3 as something called the secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which is a very wonderful honor. We commemorate with 24 cemeteries abroad the sacrifice of America’s veterans.

Explore2014: Cleland was in the center of D-Day celebration in France

Q. But you're still not complete?

A. No. Not complete. Not like the Senate. And I'm not sure that I will be. But I do have a public service that I can render and I do have a job that I can do.

Q. And then so what's next?

A. My view is, this is the bottom of the eighth or the top of the ninth [inning] for me. I think this is it for me.

Q. OK, so what's the story with the Mickey Mouse watch?

A. It says a lot about time — the time that we're in. I would much rather wear this than any other watch.

It was given to me by the Disney people when they premiered the movie “Pocahontas” at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. When I was in the second grade my mother took me in 1947 to see the opening of the Fox Theatre to the premiere of “Song of the South.” I remember it. So when the Disney people gave me the Mickey Mouse watch ... it [became] a sentimental piece, because I have sentiment about Fox Theatre, about Disney — and about the kind of goofy times we now live in.


‘A turning point in my life’

Excerpts from “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove”

On catching “Potomac fever”:

“On September 10, 1963, I landed at National Airport to begin the Washington Semester Program at American University. It was a turning point in my life. Within the first week I caught one of the deadliest fevers known to man — Potomac fever. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was permanently afflicted. “The only cure for politics,” Hubert Humphrey once observed, “is embalming fluid.” At 21 years of age, and released for a semester from my Army ROTC obligations, I had the time of my life in Washington.”

On Barack Obama becoming president:

“And then came the inauguration of Barack Obama. America had self-corrected. It was a transformational moment for me for the most unexpected of reasons. I watched the inaugural address with my father in his house in Lithonia.

When he spoke the words “For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh,” my heart skipped. I couldn’t believe he said Khe Sanh. It was an amazing moment for me, to finally get recognition, almost 41 years later to the month, for the battle that had changed the course of my life.”