Max Cleland, Vietnam Veteran and Former Senator, Dies at 79

He lost both legs and an arm in the war. Republicans impugned his patriotism by linking him to Osama bin Laden in an infamous TV spot.

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Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm during the Vietnam War and who became a Senator from Georgia, only to lose his seat after Republicans impugned his patriotism, died on Tuesday at his home in Atlanta. He was 79.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said Jason D. Meininger, a close friend.

After a grenade accident in Vietnam in 1968, Mr. Cleland spent 18 months recuperating. He served in local politics in his native Georgia and as head of the federal Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, before he was elected in 1996 to the U.S. Senate.

But it was his treatment at the hands of Republicans while he was seeking re-election in 2002 that made him a Democratic cause celebre.

Running for another term just a year after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was the target of an infamous 30-second television spot that showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein while it questioned Mr. Cleland’s commitment to homeland security and implied that he was soft on the war on terror.

It was the ad’s images in particular that created the uproar. Even prominent Republicans, including Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel, both Vietnam veterans, were outraged.

“I’ve never seen anything like that ad,” Mr. McCain told The Washington Post. “Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to a picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield — it’s worse than disgraceful, it’s reprehensible.”

Mr. Hagel said he recoiled when he saw the ad, and it rankled many others, who noted that Mr. Cleland’s Republican opponent, Representative Saxby Chambliss, had avoided military service.

When Mr. Cleland lost the election to Mr. Chambliss, 46 to 53 percent, which helped the Republicans narrowly recapture the Senate, the ad was perceived as having made a difference.

In fact, Mr. Cleland had been losing ground in the polls before the ad was aired. He was already seen as too liberal and out of step with Georgia voters.

But the ad was so explosive that Democrats seized on it and made the attacks on Mr. Cleland emblematic of the low road that they said the Republicans, led by Mr. Bush’s aggressive political operative, Karl Rove, would take to achieve their ends.

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At a veterans event, Mr. Cleland with Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. Both were Vietnam veterans and were targeted in political ads that questioned their patriotism.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

In the fraught post-9/11 era, the ad was also a harbinger of things to come. Two years later, as Mr. Cleland predicted, a small group of veterans sought to undermine the wartime record of Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

At the Democratic convention in Boston, where Mr. Kerry was nominated, James Carville, the party strategist, introduced Mr. Cleland by saying he would go down in history for the injustice he suffered in 2002. Whipping up the crowd by recalling old slogans like “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember the Maine,” Mr. Carville declared: “We’re going to Remember Max.”

“In some ways,” wrote The Los Angeles Times, “Cleland is more powerful as a symbol than he ever was as a senator.”

Beyond what he came to symbolize, Mr. Cleland was crushed by losing the race, which plunged him into a deep depression.

“It broke his heart,” Mr. Kerry recalled in a phone interview. “That ad was such a dastardly, disgraceful hit. And it set the template.”

The loss of his seat and the start of the Iraq war in 2003 triggered a long-dormant case of post-traumatic stress disorder that sent Mr. Cleland back to Walter Reed hospital, outside Washington, where he had been treated after his injuries in Vietnam.

“After I lost the Senate race in 2002, my life collapsed,” he told History.net. “I went down in every way you can go down. I lost my life as I knew it.”

His anxiety was compounded, he said, because he had voted for the Iraq war, a stance he took, he said later, because if he had voted against it, he would have been “dead meat” in his re-election bid. He said it was the worst vote he had cast.

As therapy, he wrote a book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove” (with Ben Raines, 2009).

“Through weekly counseling, medication for anxiety and depression, and weekly attendance at a spiritual Twelve Step recovery group, I began to heal,” he wrote, adding that he gained strength from being among veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “My personal recovery and renewal have taken years.”

Joseph Maxwell Cleland was born on Aug. 24, 1942, in Atlanta, Ga. His mother, Juanita Cleland, worked as a secretary for Standard Oil. His father, Hugh Cleland, was in the Navy at the time. After the war, he moved the family to Lithonia, Ga., outside Atlanta, where he worked in the granite quarries. He later became a traveling salesman.

As a boy, Max, as he was called, became enthralled with cowboys, and for the rest of his life, he loved watching Westerns. Even as an adult he kept pictures of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers on his wall, among those of other heroes like Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Max was a top student and star athlete at Lithonia High School, excelling in baseball, basketball and tennis and graduating in 1960.

At Stetson University in Florida, he majored in history before graduating in 1964. He later received a master’s degree in history from Emory University. It was during a summer semester at American University in Washington in 1963 that he resolved to become a senator.

But first, he would enlist. His father and most of his male relatives had fought in World War II, and Max did not want to miss the war of his generation. He joined the Army in 1965 and volunteered for Vietnam in 1967.

On April 8, 1968, just days before his tour was to end, Capt. Cleland was on a rescue mission in the village of Khe Sanh when he noticed a hand grenade on the ground. He picked it up and it detonated, instantly severing his right leg and right arm; his left leg was amputated within the hour. He was later awarded the Bronze Star and a Silver Star for meritorious service.

For three decades, Mr. Cleland blamed himself for his injuries, thinking the grenade had fallen off his own belt. But he later learned from a Marine who had witnessed the explosion that it had been dropped by an unnamed private who had manipulated the pins in a misguided attempt to make the grenade easier to use in combat.

After recuperating at Walter Reed, Mr. Cleland moved back to Georgia and at 28 became the youngest person elected to the Georgia State Senate. As a lawmaker he helped make public facilities accessible to people with disabilities.

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Mr. Cleland and President Jimmy Carter, who had named him head of the Veterans Administration, at a Veteran’s Day celebration in 1977.Credit…Teresa Zabala/The New York Times

President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgian, named him head of the Veterans Administration in 1977, and Mr. Cleland soon instituted psychological counseling for vets. After Mr. Carter lost the presidency, Mr. Cleland returned to Georgia and wrote about the challenges of being a triple amputee in a memoir, “Strong at the Broken Places” (1980), taking his title from Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” He also was a consultant on the movie “Coming Home” (1978), starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight as a disabled Vietnam veteran.

Mr. Cleland was elected secretary of state in Georgia and served for 14 years, until 1996, when Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, announced his retirement. Mr. Cleland ran for the seat and narrowly defeated the businessman Guy Millner.

In the Senate, Mr. Cleland was liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters. He was a reliable vote for increased military spending but was wary of committing troops overseas. In 2001, he broke with Democrats to vote for tax cuts proposed by Mr. Bush, but by and large he went along with the Democratic agenda.

With the Senate race in 2002 drawing national attention, President Bush, who was popular in Georgia, visited the state multiple times on behalf of Mr. Chambliss. By Election Day, polls showed Mr. Cleland retaining a small lead. But they failed to predict a huge turnout by rural white men, many of them angry that Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, had removed the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Both Mr. Barnes and Mr. Cleland were tossed out of office.

Mr. Cleland later taught at American University, in the same program that had inspired him as a youth. He served briefly on the 9/11 Commission before President Bush nominated him to a four-year term on the board of the Export-Import Bank.

Through it all, Mr. Cleland commemorated the date of his accident, April 8, which he called his “Alive Day.”

“He’d call me and say what he was grateful for,” Mr. Kerry said. “Usually it was his gratitude about his fellow vets.”

Mr. Cleland left no immediate survivors but had maintained a circle of close friends. For the last three decades his caretaker was Linda Dean, who also managed his affairs.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Mr. Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency that manages monuments and cemeteries in 17 countries honoring the tens of thousands of American servicemen and servicewomen buried overseas and the more than 95,000 troops missing in action in foreign wars.

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Mr. Cleland in Alabama in 2004, trying to build support for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry among veterans.Credit…Dave Martin/Associated Press

Mr. Cleland said in an interview with ABC News that he expected the job to give him “a sense of meaning and purpose.”

He then quoted a line from a poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak,” by Archibald MacLeish, in which the dead address the living: “We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning.”

“It is really up to us, the living,” Mr. Cleland added, “to provide that meaning for those who have given their all for this country.”

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