Opinion: Public servants should put country first, as Max Cleland did

Max Cleland, former U.S. Georgia senator, Vietnam veteran, dies at age 79
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Max Cleland, former U.S. Georgia senator, Vietnam veteran, dies at age 79

SUNDAY ISSUE: REMEMBRANCES OF FORMER U.S. SEN. MAX CLELAND

Max Cleland risked everything for his country, saw the worst in mankind, and returned from war unbowed, with a resolve to do good and a passion for service.

He was open about the mental and physical struggles that stemmed from the fateful day in Khe Sanh, April, 8, 1968, when a grenade blast cost him both legs and his right hand. It was a dividing line for Max – there was life before and there was life after. In his book, “Strong at the Broken Places,” he said he struggled with the aftermath of Vietnam every day. “It is a battle I can fight and overcome,” he wrote, “but one I will never completely win.”

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Josh Zembik

Credit: contributed

Josh Zembik
Caption
Josh Zembik

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Some 30 years later, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with the country marching toward war, a patriotic fervor built toward another dividing line, this time for Max and our country’s politics. Suddenly, the man who won a Silver Star and Bronze Star for valor in combat was being attacked by Republican operatives and Saxby Chambliss, who was vying for his Senate seat. In a TV ad, Chambliss attacked Cleland’s courage and honesty, and depicted the senator in grainy images alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, actual enemies of the United States.

Democrats were outraged. Average Americans were outraged.

But, on the Republican side of the Senate, only Chuck Hagel and the late John McCain – both Vietnam veterans – expressed concern at all. McCain said the attack was “worse than disgraceful. It’s reprehensible.”

After Saxby Chambliss won using a playbook that questioned the moral core of his opponent, Max struggled with depression – a feeling of loss worse, he said, than what he experienced after Vietnam. This time a loss of purpose.

But in Washington — where you’re either up or you’re down and everything is portrayed as an endless horse race — while Max Cleland faded from memory, Saxby Chambliss ascended, serving as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and as the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was a fixture on Sunday shows and across polite cocktail party society. He even notched a hole-in-one playing golf with President Obama.

There were no repercussions for character assassination.

No rescinded invitations. No sideways looks.

And when Washington and the political establishment OK’d attacking the patriotism of a triple-amputee war hero – when they said through their actions that there was no price to pay for questioning the service and courage of Max Cleland – they opened completely the door to the politics of today.

They opened the door to purple heart band-aids mocking John Kerry, another Vietnam veteran, at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

They opened the door to attacks on Barack Obama’s religion and racist questions about his place of birth.

They opened the door to heated, inciting rhetoric that not only attacked the integrity of elections but brought an angry mob to the U.S. Capitol.

And they opened the door to those who only measure success in wins and losses by creating poll-tested controversies to stoke fear in everyday Americans and divide us from each other, even as we have become more united behind commonsense policies, like universal Pre-K, expanded health benefits and paid leave. These fabricated political bogeymen, like caravans at the border, Sharia law, and the latest heralded tactic that Republicans deployed in the Virginia gubernatorial contest, Critical Race Theory, obscure productive policy debate and diminish government service. Worse, these tactics are too often reported as legitimate by a mainstream media grappling with the meaning of objectivity in an era of misinformation and 24/7 news.

American politics certainly have not always been civil, and military service does not and should never inoculate one from criticism. But nearly 20 years after Max Cleland’s defeat, and in the wake of his death, we must reckon with what his loss means because we live with it every day.

The playbook used against him wasn’t new – turn your opponent’s strength into a liability – but the level of attack was. The sheer firepower. The personal nature. The questioning of patriotism over a procedural vote.

Our politics is coarsened and polarization is worse than ever. Experts point to Donald Trump as an outlier in today’s Republican Party, when in fact he is an outgrowth of orchestrated strategies and tactics that delegitimized service and democracy over decades.

As we grapple with the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol and head into what is bound to be another bruising election season, we again have a chance to impose standards and accountability on our officials and bad-faith actors.

Max Cleland was willing to – and did – risk everything for his country.

The least we can do, to honor his memory, is ask ourselves how we can pursue a better politics in which truth and accountability matter more than wins and losses.

We owe it to Max to ensure that the stories of our leaders — and in turn, our republic — are shaped by Americans, who, like him or fellow veteran McCain, commit to putting country over party, even or especially when the stakes are highest.

Josh Zembik has worked in national politics for more than two decades, including for Sen. Max Cleland in Washington from 2000 to 2003. He currently lives in Chicago.