Cleland expounds on life after politics

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Oct. 15, 2009.

On a quiet Tuesday night in the shadow of downtown Atlanta, Max Cleland rolled his wheelchair to the head of a welcoming crowd and explained where he'd been the past seven years.

Down the dank rabbit hole of depression and out the other side.

The gathering of 150 or so at the Carter Center was the first event in Georgia associated with the publication of Cleland's new book, "Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove."

Attendees were mostly older. Many were former military, and some were from Cleland's old neighborhood in Lithonia. A C-SPAN camera was there as well. At least one Republican was in the audience.

The former U.S. senator, who lost his seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002, disappointed some who had assumed that, in the years since, the Vietnam veteran had drifted into the ranks of conspiracy theorists.

Cleland had no answer for the lanky fellow who assumed that, because the former Georgia senator had quit his first post-Senate assignment to the 9/11 commission in 2003, he must have evidence that the attack on New York's World Trade Center was an inside job.

He had resigned, Cleland said, because President George W. Bush and his White House had stonewalled when it came to saying what they knew about the participants in the attack, and when they knew it.

A woman declared that she knew for a fact that the 2002 election had been stolen from Cleland by the manufacturer of the new touch-screen voting machines used that November.

Cleland said he had his own suspicions, and used the phrase "ripe for fraud" more than once. But he also pointed out the larger and more likely factors responsible for his defeat: Gov. Roy Barnes' removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, and a ruthless, Washington-directed campaign by Republicans to unseat him. Which included that now-famous TV ad.

"To put my face up there alongside that of Saddam Hussein and bin Laden was bull feathers. But they got away with it, " Cleland said.

What Cleland was most ready to talk about was Afghanistan and his own personal struggle with depression. After his defeat, Cleland said, "I dropped like a rock."

As a topic, depression runs the length of his book. But it is something new to Georgians. Cleland kept his condition hidden throughout his political career. Voters preferred the Max who always smiled and never said die.

"Public service and public life became my way of coping, " he said.

Cleland credited Jimmy Carter with saving him from oblivion. At loose ends after an unsuccessful race for lieutenant governor, Cleland was appointed head of the Veterans Administration after Carter's election as president in 1976.

This summer, again at loose ends, Cleland was appointed to head the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Barack Obama. "My heart goes out to another president who saves my rear end at a time when it needed to be saved, " he said.

Cleland said post-traumatic stress and his grievous wounds from Vietnam left him with a lifelong craving for "safety, organization and stability."

Without that trio, he said, "I go into a massive, deep, dark depression and I get to where I don't want to live. I don't go there anymore."

Cleland spoke with the candor of a man who will never again seek public office.

"When your brain is compromised, and your body is riding high with massive anxiety and you can't shake it, it's a terrible feeling. And you cannot concentrate. You cannot read."

So he stays away from TV and newspapers. "I've done that for years. It helps me gain a little bit of perspective. I get most of my news second-hand."

Outside his duties with the monuments commission, Cleland said he intends to focus on military matters.

On Afghanistan, Cleland said the Obama administration appears to be headed toward a "classic counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism blend, where you use Afghanistan as the anvil, and you use Pakistan as the hammer."

Afghanistan will be a defensive zone for U.S. troops, he said. The true offensive will take place in Pakistan.

The trick, Cleland said, will be in giving Pakistan the covert help and air support it needs to root out al- Qaida. Rising debate over the number of troops needed in Afghanistan is a red herring, the former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee argued.

"The question of boots on the ground is moot as long as you have a sanctuary nearby where the bad guys can go hide. You have to deny them the sanctuary. Otherwise, that's called Vietnam, " he said.

This is a man who knows his swamps. Inside and out.