Astounding highs and frightful lows have marked Max Cleland’s four-plus decades in public service. Friday certainly qualifies as a high, but it is not a moment of pure joy.
The former U.S. senator from Georgia, now the head of the agency overseeing America’s overseas cemeteries, will welcome President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande to Omaha Beach Friday morning to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. It is a moment in the spotlight rare for Cleland, 71, at this stage of his career.
On Thursday he gave a speech with an unsenatorial three-minute length and cut a ribbon opening a new visitors center at Pointe du Hoc, site of a critical Army Ranger operation on D-Day. Asked whether he was enjoying all the pomp and circumstance, Cleland answered flatly: “No, because I’m responsible for some of it.”
The man is nothing if not honest about his emotions.
His most prominent war wounds are visible to anyone who looks. Cleland lost both legs and his right arm to a hand grenade in Vietnam. But he also struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, and losing his Senate seat in 2002 coupled with the escalation of the Iraq war sent him into a deep depression. Therapy and medication helped him recover, and he wrote a 2009 memoir detailing the experience.
That year Cleland became the secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, a little-known corner of the federal bureaucracy that watches over 24 cemeteries and many more markers around the world honoring America’s war dead.
The commission has a low profile in the United States, but those little chunks of foreign soil provide physical reminders of how good an ally the U.S. can be.
When Obama — who this week pledged a larger troop presence in Europe — takes the King of Belgium to the U.S. World War I cemetery at Flanders Field, Cleland said, "It sends a message."
The world-famous Normandy site, where more than 8,000 Americans are buried, is the jewel of the cemetery system. The rows of graves are a moving sight, but the victory they helped win is shown in the hundreds of celebrations happening this week as the French countryside is swarmed with visitors — many in period garb.
“The message of Normandy is more than just the sacrifice,” Cleland said. “It is the saving of Western European civilization.”
The Normandy invasion grows more distant by the day, along with all of the conflicts marked by U.S. overseas cemeteries. Starting with the Korean War, America started bringing its fallen home, through a now-familiar ritual at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. That makes Cleland’s job more urgent to connect the monuments to the present generation.
Last month, as he wheeled around the agency’s office in Arlington, Va., Cleland proudly introduced a visitor to a social media coordinator he had hired so “America’s history teacher” can do so with more modern tools.
He describes himself as honored by the opportunity he has and says it’s been a part of his personal comeback.
“It’s helped me regain my confidence that I’m an OK guy, an OK leader,” Cleland said at the AMBC’s headquarters.
The White House is a little more effusive.
“His extraordinary combination of experience and expertise has helped Secretary Cleland in fulfilling the commission’s charge of honoring our country’s fallen heroes,” White House spokesman Kaelan Richards said.
The commission’s small office suite in a nondescript office building seems far removed from the U.S. Capitol and the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Cleland once held high power.
Cleland served as President Jimmy Carter’s VA secretary, in addition to winning three terms as Georgia’s secretary of state and one in the U.S. Senate before a bitter 2002 loss to Saxby Chambliss. During that campaign, Chambliss ran an ad attacking Cleland while showing images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. For Cleland, dark days followed.
When Obama was elected, Cleland’s name was bandied about for secretary of the Army or a second tour as head of the VA. But Cleland had recently discovered the AMBC, and the fact that one of the requirements of the secretary job is to be an Army officer.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one that applied for it,” he said with a laugh.
Cleland said the gig has been more challenging than he expected, particularly after Congress handed the AMBC — over Cleland’s objections — a new cemetery on a former U.S. air base in the Philippines but no extra money to take care of it. There is also the small matter that a neighboring volcano recently erupted and covered the whole place in ash.
But there are worse jobs.
“He’s a better man than I to take the slings of arrows of outrageous fortune down there,” Cleland said last month of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, before Shinseki was fully submerged in the rising tide of scandal.
Cleland came to Shinseki’s defense as reports mounted of Veterans Affairs staff hiding the true lengths of time veterans were waiting for medical attention. In an op-ed in the Washington publication Politico, Cleland wrote, “We veterans need facts, not a firing.” Shinseki offered his resignation — and Obama accepted it — two weeks later.
It was one of few moments when Cleland has stepped outside his position at the AMBC. What those moments have in common is Cleland coming to the aid of an old friend.
He quipped that he keeps “volunteering for jobs around this town nobody wants,” since he agreed to serve on a commission to help the Army sort out the mess of mislabeled graves at Arlington Cemetery as a favor to Secretary John McHugh. He also worked behind the scenes to help get his former Senate colleague Chuck Hagel confirmed as secretary of defense.
He has provided some informal advice to the Democrat seeking to capture his old Senate seat, Michelle Nunn, but has not been a big part of her campaign. The race, Cleland said, “is an uphill climb for any Democrat, and everybody knows it.”
Former Georgia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said Cleland’s profile will increase whenever he leaves his current post, and he will be a valuable resource for the party if — in Berlon’s assessment “when” — Democrats retake power in the state.
“Georgia politics is in his blood,” Berlon said.
Cleland’s impact extends far beyond politics, as was clear Thursday as he arrived at the Pointe du Hoc ceremony in his wheelchair, and Mike Schlitz stopped Cleland for a quick chat.
Schlitz, 37, lost both his hands in the Iraq war and suffered severe burns. He is now a motivational speaker and leadership consultant to big corporations who is moving soon to the Columbus, Ga., area. Cleland’s career, Schlitz said, defies what people think amputees can do.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will continue throughout the weekend with its coverage of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Saturday’s paper will offer coverage of President Barack Obama’s speech at the ceremony in Normandy. On Sunday, the AJC will feature the stories of Georgians who participated in the largest invasion in history.