Max Cleland has become a much bigger star in defeat than he ever was as a sitting U.S. senator.
Fact is, Cleland didn’t make much news during his single, unremarkable senate term. But two years after Georgia voters soundly rebuffed his re-election bid, Cleland has become a Democratic media dynamo, even to the point of introducing John Kerry at last month’s Democratic convention.
So what happened? Out of office and with apparently little else to do, the career politician campaigned early and often for Kerry. He appeared frequently as a Kerry surrogate on TV and was always at the candidate’s side on winning primary nights.
This summer, Cleland is starring in an anti-Iraq War documentary, “Strong at the Broken Places.” In the film, Cleland, who lost an arm and both legs in Vietnam, talks to wounded soldiers and the families of the dead. He rips the current war as “misguided” and “another Vietnam.”
Most importantly, however, Cleland is the star of a Democratic political tale retold by everyone from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to Terry McAuliffe. Kerry summed up the story, saying he “continues to be motivated” by “the most craven moment I’ve ever seen in politics: when the Republican Party challenged [Cleland’s] patriotism in the last campaign.”
Trouble is, the story isn’t true. But that hasn’t kept it from achieving folklore status among Democrats and their press parrots.
Then-U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss didn’t question Cleland’s patriotism in 2002. He questioned Cleland’s senate voting record, particularly his votes on national security.
Though he voted with his liberal Democratic leaders 87 percent of the time, Cleland was hardly the most liberal senator around. (That honor was Kerry’s.) Still, Cleland was not the strongest supporter of either the Defense Department or the nascent war on terror.
Specifically, Chambliss slammed Cleland’s 1997 vote on an amendment to a chemical weapons treaty that would have allowed citizens of terrorism-sponsoring countries to participate in international enforcement inspections. It was a dopey idea – and Chambliss criticized Cleland for thinking otherwise.
Chambliss also objected to Cleland’s 11 votes against President Bush’s effort to create the Department of Homeland Security. Rather than support the new anti-terror department, Cleland chose to stick up for his union buddies, who didn’t like aspects of Bush’s bill.
Chambliss ran some tough TV spots on Cleland’s voting record. In response, the incumbent did little more than whine about how his patriotism had been questioned. Even though it hadn’t.
The folk story went national when liberal columnist Mark Shields picked up the Cleland line and indignantly complained about how Chambliss could dare question the patriotism of a man who lost three limbs in Vietnam.
On Election Day 2002, Georgians picked Chambliss over Cleland, 54 to 46 percent. Surely voters would not have been so kind to Chambliss had he really “questioned the patriotism” of a man who sacrificed as dearly as Cleland did in Vietnam.
So why does Kerry keep repeating the claim? In general, Democrats love depicting themselves as innocent victims of Republican attacks. Even the Clintons, after all, blamed their troubles on a “vast, right-wing conspiracy,” not their own shady doings and Bill’s runaway libido.
More specifically, the Cleland folk story is a bid to put Kerry’s dovish voting record off-limits to criticism. If you’re wondering, he voted against nearly every major US weapons system and supported deep cuts in intelligence spending. He was also on the wrong side of the Cold War, opposing Ronald Reagan’s successful peace-through-strength approach at every turn.
Kerry’s voting record is more than fair game. No less Democratic icon than John F. Kennedy ripped the defense record of Dwight Eisenhower while running against Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon, in 1960. Eisenhower’s war hero status didn’t give Kennedy pause in claiming Eisenhower had allowed a “missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union. And Kerry’s Vietnam service shouldn’t keep Republicans from highlighting his weak foreign policy record.
For his part, Cleland says Iraq is this generation’s Vietnam, but there are far more differences than similarities. What the two conflicts share, if anything, is a committed minority of anti-war partisans who will say or do anything to discredit the war effort. Including lie about the circumstances of Max Cleland’s defeat.
If Cleland wants to keep running down the current struggle to liberate Iraq, he might start with a nice long diatribe in his mirror – and then turn his ire on the Democratic ticket. In October 2002, Cleland voted to authorize the war, along with John Kerry and John Edwards.