News of former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland’s passing hit me hard. I knew that his health had been declining and his time might be near, but that doesn’t make it any easier. It’s difficult saying goodbye not only to a national hero, but also someone who made such an indelible impression on me and helped shape my early years.
Max was a longtime family friend, and I knew him practically my entire life. My father Raghbir (R.K.) Sehgal and Max forged their relationship in the mid-1980s. My father was then the CEO of the Law Cos., and Max was Georgia’s secretary of state. My dad invited Max several times to address his employees and even abroad to the UK office (where he flew the Georgia flag in honor of Max’s presence). “Max is a patriot. He exhibits the best qualities of being an American. We ought to name more national monuments and parks after him,” said my dad.
Days after winning his election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, Max came to our home for dinner. It was a heady group: Pat Crecine, president of Georgia Tech; famed entrepreneur Herman Russell and his wife Otelia; Joseph Salgado (former undersecretary of energy); my grandfather Piara Singh Gill (scientist and advisor to Prime Minister Nehru of India); Ambassador Andrew Young and Carolyn Young. I remember this night vividly because Ambassador Young presided over a mock swearing-in ceremony, in which Max recited the words he would eventually say on the Senate floor, concluding with “So help me God.”
Max and I grew closer when I was in college in New Hampshire. He was the top surrogate for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign and was making frequent trips to the Granite State. He asked if I could drive him around. Naturally, I said yes. It was one of the best decisions in my life. We traveled to over 20 states together -- from Florida to Alaska -- over more than a year, as part of the campaign. I missed many classes, but I was learning something else.
I have many stirring, fond memories from being on the road with Max. Here are but a few:
- Max was an orator: He loved turning a phrase. He studied great orators like Winston Churchill and quoted them on the trail. Max spoke fondly about the Churchill War Rooms in London, and made sure I visited when I later lived in the UK. We collaborated on his speeches, and he loved utilizing military metaphors: “We need a new skipper in the ship-of-state,” he said about Kerry. Max frequently quoted Shakespeare and the last lines of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural: “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
- Max always had a zinger: “Southerners can be critical but not mean,” Max would say. “Some people say that’s the ugliest boy I’ve ever seen … bless his heart.” Once when we were at an event with James Carville, Max quipped: “James is a Marine.” He continued, “to err is human, to forgive divine; neither is Marine Corps policy.” When a staffer asked Max what he would talk about in an important stump speech, Max responded: “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” In summer 2004, there were four of us in the car driving through Carbondale, Illinois: Max, then-State Senator Barack Obama, the driver and me. Max had the future president in stitches with jokes that can’t be reprinted in a family newspaper.
- I love you, brother: Those were some of his favorite words. We met thousands of veterans on the trail. Often at an American Legion Hall or VFW Post, he greeted his fellow veterans with a warm smile and “I love you, brother.” When we rolled up to the Metrodome in Minneapolis with over 30,000 people in attendance days before the 2004 election, he whispered these very words into John Kerry’s ears. I was so inspired with Max’s commitment to serve that years later I received a commission as a U.S. Navy Reserve officer. Max was initially reluctant (not wanting me to get hurt or worse), but he eventually came around. He affectionately answered the phone with “Hello, Lieutenant” when I called.
- How to be a friend: This may sound overwrought, but Max taught me how to be a friend. I was a hyper, ambitious, at-times-arrogant young adult. I didn’t have that many friends, as I was laser focused on my grades or the next accomplishment. He taught me by example how to be with people. No matter who he met, he asked how they were and always about their families. He truly wanted to know. He helped me see the importance of connecting more deeply with others. “We’re imperfect and need each other,” he told me. I still think about this a lot.
A few weeks ago, I visited the Normandy American Cemetery, which is under the auspices of the American Battle Monument Commission. Max was its secretary during the Obama Administration, and he always spoke glowingly about these hallowed lands and urged me to visit one day. As I walked around the graves, I looked over the cliffs and thought of my friend. In my mind, I could hear his hearty laugh and see his smile.
Whenever Max and I would get home from a long trip, my sister would meet us on the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport tarmac. We would drive him to his Buckhead apartment, and make sure he was situated for the night. We hugged and said our goodbyes.
“See you down the road,” he would say.
I look forward to that day.
Kabir Sehgal is a multi-Grammy award winner, author of 16 books, a former investment banker and a U.S. Navy veteran.