Max Cleland, Inspired by Bobby Kennedy, Looks to Young Joe

Joe Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for Massachusetts' 4th district, former Sen. Max Cleland and Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren appear at a rally at Laborers Hall in Hopkinton, Mass. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

HOPKINTON, Mass. — Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) told the story here on Saturday of how he came to politics. It began with an undergraduate, floundering at Stetson University, who came upon a picture of fellow students meeting then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

As Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran who served in the Senate from 1997 to 2003, spoke about the spark of inspiration that photo lit in his mind, Kennedy's grandson, Congressional candidate Joe Kennedy III, stood behind him.

Cleland, 70, on a tour of events in support of Democratic Senate nominee Elizabeth Warren, took a few minutes to reflect on the meaning of Kennedy, 32, introducing him. And then he gave the candidate, running for the open seat in the 4th district, his endorsement.

"Hearing Joe talk about public service, I wouldn't be here at all without some of his forebearers," he told a rapt audience.

Cleland explained how that picture pushed him to join a semester program in the nation's capital and how after a week in Washington, D.C., he was hooked on politics. Cleland mentioned how, as an intern in the House, he had a chance to meet Robert Kennedy. And how he learned of Kennedy's assassination while recovering from his war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Georgian spoke about his friendship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and the "deep reservoir of pain and suffering" that the liberal lion carried with him and how it informed the Senator's care for the "common man."

He then turned to speaking about the younger Kennedy, the great nephew of the late Senator who is expected to be the first Kennedy of his generation to join the Congressional ranks.

"If this election was just about sending another Kennedy to Congress from Massachusetts, that would be history-making in and of itself," Cleland said. "But my understanding of where America is today is that we need the compassion, the passion, the insight, the history of Joe Kennedy to come to Washington."

In an interview with Roll Call after the event, Kennedy appeared moved by Cleland's words. "Whenever you have somebody that has the values and the character that Sen. Cleland has, talk about how they were influenced by members of my family, it is extraordinarily humbling," he said slowly. "It's an emotional moment for me."

Kennedy had earlier introduced Cleland here with remarks that praised his "steely moral courage with physical courage as well."

The candidate also mentioned in his remarks that Warren, standing next to him on the stage, was one of his professors at Harvard Law School.

And Warren, for her part, gave a ringing endorsement of the rising star.

"I want to tell you two things that I know all the way down to my toes about him. The first," she said, as Kennedy looked on, "is that he has a good heart. And the second is he will work his tail off," Warren said. "I'll put my money on him any day."

Kennedy is a lock for the comfortably Democratic 4th district being vacated by retiring Rep. Barney Frank (D).