October 2009

Max Cleland's Long Road Home

A conversation with the former senator
Interview by Steve Fennessy

Note: The accompanying book excerpt is available in the print edition only


In June, Max Cleland appeared with President Obama in Normandy, France, to commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day. Just days before, Obama had named Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, charged with overseeing the cemeteries and memorials around the world that honor U.S. soldiers who died in battle. For Cleland, who lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam, the D-Day remembrance was the beginning of a new career, coming almost seven years after losing his U.S. Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss in one of the ugliest races Georgia has seen in years. Perhaps most memorable about the campaign was a Chambliss TV ad that linked an image of Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Cleland’s defeat unmoored him. His depression became so severe that he ended up back at Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., where he’d gone decades before to recuperate from his war injuries. A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder led him to an even greater understanding of the challenges faced by returning veterans. Always an outspoken advocate for veterans (he served as head of Veterans Affairs under President Carter), Cleland has now written a memoir, out this month. Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove pulls no punches about George W. Bush, Georgia’s election system, and the long road back from defeat. Cleland will speak and sign books at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. on October 13. To accompany the following excerpt, Atlanta magazine editor Steve Fennessy talked with Cleland about the memoir.

You dropped out of the public eye after the 2002 election. As you write in your book, that period after your loss to Saxby Chambliss put you in a tailspin. It was the worst period in my life. The lowest point was when I ended up back in Walter Reed again after forty years and realized this time I had to repair my mind and my soul and my psyche, rather than my body. They are really the best in the business. They understand post-traumatic stress disorder. They understand the things that can follow from that—the depression, the extent to which life can go black. I’m still in touch with my counselor and my psychiatrist at Walter Reed, and they’re helping me put my life back together now, just like Walter Reed helped me put my body back together forty-one years ago.

You expose some very raw emotions in the book—feeling lost after the defeat in 2002, the anger as the war in Iraq ramped up, your own feelings of rage and sorrow as you came face-to-face with post-traumatic stress. Was it difficult putting this to paper and sharing it so openly? Was it therapy for you? It was a form of therapy. I wrote the book for myself, and I’m willing to share it with others. If anybody coming from Iraq and Afghanistan picks up the book and it helps save their life, then it will be worthwhile. It was therapeutic to go back over and over and over all of this stuff and try to make sense of it. Ultimately I came down to a point of belief that life itself is an act of faith. When I’ve come to the end of all the light I have and step out into the darkness of the unknown, whether I believe it or not, there’s always been something to stand on or I’ve been taught to fly. That’s the most powerful statement of faith I’ve ever heard. It’s from a book called A General’s Spiritual Journey, by [Lieutenant] General Hal Moore.

There’s been increasing coverage in the press about the spike in suicide rates among returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. When you come to the end of all the light you have, sometimes that darkness of the unknown can be home. Sometimes home can be a strange and weird place that you haven’t particularly gained familiarity with. You’re a different person when you come home from war. An Iraq veteran told me the toughest thing he ever did was come home. More than just readjustment, we have to understand that these young men and women have been in a difficult place. They’ve been to hell and back, and dealing with it is extremely difficult.

You write about being surprised to be diagnosed with PTSD so many years after Vietnam. What has your own experience taught you about the condition? I thought I didn’t have PTSD. But now we know that massive trauma disturbs the reptilian portion of your brain. You can deal with it. You can make it better. But wars are never over. My therapist says to concentrate on SOS—safety, organization, stability. But politics—especially Georgia politics—is anything but safe, organized, and stable.

The Democrats made huge strides nationwide in the 2008 election, but Georgia remains solidly Republican. What can the Democrats in Georgia do to be a statewide force again?
We need a two-party system. When I was in the state Senate and there were only five Republicans in the Senate—Paul Coverdell and Bob Bell and others—they were saying we need a two-party system. Now Democrats are saying that. A lot of what needs to be done is being done. A lot of people would like to think it’s message, but the candidates are going to put that out. But in terms of party structure, it’s all about organization and turnout.

In your book, you talk about “below-the-radar chicanery” that helped ensure your defeat, that Diebold’s control over our electronic voting system basically cut out any oversight by Georgia election officials. Is there a part of you that thinks you actually won the election in 2002? No. But there’s a part of me that knows it was tampered with.

You also talk about the backlash from young white males in the 2002 statewide election as a result of the flag issue. Why were they so susceptible to that issue? That’s the South. As the historian C. Vann Woodward said, the South is different because history has happened to it. A slave-based economy grew up, then the Civil War came, and then afterwards the slaves were free. Because the Republicans had authorized blacks to vote, the South turned Democratic—hard-core Democratic for well over a century. Then when Lyndon Johnson came along with the civil rights bill in 1964, he changed the South and made it Republican for a generation. The Republican Party has taken over the legacy of the old Southern Dixiecrats. It’s become the haven of the rural white males who have to compete with blacks for jobs as the emerging black community comes of age. In [2001], Governor Roy Barnes and the Legislature changed the state flag. The Republicans took advantage of that. Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition and by that time chairman of the state Republican Party, and Karl Rove personally recruited Saxby Chambliss. The flag issue was off the charts with white males. Come Election Day in 2002, you had a dramatic increase by 140,000 votes of white males who came out and voted who normally would have stayed home. And then you had the Diebold effort. The combination caught all of us in between. Barnes, me, Tom Murphy—we all got caught in the anger and aftermath. So Georgia flipped big-time into the Republican column.

Is Georgia’s system of electronic voting broken?
It is broken, for one reason: It does not have a paper trail. Diebold fought a paper trail. The Republican Congress did not favor a paper trail. Now we see that state after state is calling upon the voting machine companies to have a paper trail. Why is a paper trail necessary? So that a third party—a Democratic poll worker, a Republican poll worker—can verify a vote.

You write that Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, offered to denounce Chambliss’s attack ad, and that Chambliss asked him not to.
Chuck was ready to do an ad for me that countermanded all that stuff that Chambliss and Rove and Reed were putting out. It was completely the strategy of Karl Rove to wipe out the service of people who ran against Bush. It started with McCain, perfected with me, then hit the stride with the Swift Boat ads with Kerry. I don’t think the American people want to go there. You can call McCain and Kerry and me anything you want, but don’t take away our service. Especially if you weren’t there, if you got out of going to the war of your generation with a bunch of deferments.

Do you see yourself running for elected office again?
No, I do not. Why not? That’s a good question. (Pause.) I think the answer to that is I don’t want to. I have this mission from President Obama, to make sure the twenty-four cemeteries worldwide properly memorialize our troops. That job pays the bills. Secondly, it gives me a sense of place and purpose I didn’t have before. I’m not born to be a consultant and I’m not born to be a lobbyist and I’m not born to be in the private sector. With public service comes a lot of good things. Memorializing those who gave everything they had, it touches me deeply.