Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who died Tuesday at age 79, became a symbol of the country’s ongoing era of bitter, win-at-all-costs partisanship.
Felled by congestive heart failure 53 years after a grenade took both legs and his right arm during the Vietnam War, the former Democratic senator’s reelection loss in 2002 featured one of the most controversial political ads in U.S. history — and signaled so much of what was to come.
His opponent, then-GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss, produced a campaign ad after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that questioned whether Cleland was tough enough on terrorism. But the 30-second ad did not stop there.
To the disgust of Democratic lawmakers and strategists, it included images of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden and then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The ad never mentioned bin Laden oor Hussein, referring only to “terrorists and extremist dictators” while showing images of what in 2002 were among Washington’s top global foes in the emotional post-9/11 era. “He claims he supports President [George W.] Bush at every opportunity. But that’s not the truth,” the Chambliss campaign ad claimed.
Chambliss has defended the ad for years, calling it “lightweight” and “very fair” during a 2008 television interview, adding, “We were trying to create an agency that was going to protect Americans and in fact we did that, we did it without Cleland’s vote.”
Other Republican Vietnam veterans then serving in the Senate, including Arizona’s John McCain and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, broke with their party over the ad.
“I’ve never seen anything like that ad,” 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.”
Cleland had been among Democrats who opposed Bush’s desire to give the office of the president sweeping power over personnel in the proposed Department of Homeland Security, which did not begin operating until 2003. Cleland and other Democrats opposed undercutting the power of federal employee unions and backed a DHS-creating measure that would give personnel civil-service protections; Cleland supported the Bush-pushed 2002 authorization measure to go to war in Iraq.
McCain’s words and those policy nuances, however, were drowned out by Chambliss’ claims, which resonated with Georgia voters and helped Republicans take back control of the Senate. If the GOP learned any lesson — even though Chambliss eventually removed the images of bin Laden after Cleland and his campaign complained — it was that such claims worked.
Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign aggressively attacked the Vietnam War record of then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee.
Cleland, who spent his post-Senate years serving in several government posts and campaigning for Kerry and other Democratic politicians, described in a 2009 book titled “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove” how deeply hurt he was after losing to Chambliss.
“Through weekly counseling, medication for anxiety and depression, and weekly attendance at a spiritual Twelve Step recovery group, I began to heal,” the Army veteran wrote. “My personal recovery and renewal have taken years.”
Injured in Vietnam in 1968, the triple amputee took up service in Georgia, serving in the Georgia Senate from 1971-75, and later working for the U.S. Senate as a staffer from 1975-77, when he was tapped by President Jimmy Carter to be Veterans Affairs secretary. He served as Georgia secretary of state from 1982 to 1996, when he was elected to his only term in the U.S. Senate.
Cleland’s final government role came during the second term of the Obama administration, as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Before that, he served on the board of the Export-Import Bank of the United States — a post he took after resigning a seat on the 9/11 Commission with harsh words for the Bush administration.
“I … cannot look any American in the eye, especially family members of victims, and say the commission had full access,” he said in November 2003, according to The Associated Press. “This investigation is now compromised."
Cleland died Tuesday at his home in Atlanta.