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Tuesday, June 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Ousted by GOP, Cleland fights back
By Tamara Lytle
But nothing prepared him for the agony he would suffer 34 years later when Republicans launched a bruising attack that he says questioned his patriotism in the 2002 U.S. Senate race in Georgia.
And now, as the decorated war hero preaches the gospel of fellow Democrat and Vietnam veteran John Kerry, the anti-Cleland rhetoric is starting again.
Only this time, Cleland says, he's fighting back.
"It's not revenge for me. It's for a positive purpose for the country," said Cleland, whom the GOP targeted by using photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in their successful campaign against him two years ago. "My advice to John Kerry is: 'Fight back like hell.' I should have called it for the trash it truly is. Now I'm not pulling any punches."
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter has questioned Cleland's war-hero status and has said it is folly to call him brave. Cleland, 61, sees it as part of an ongoing Republican "slime machine" that he now dedicates his energies to fighting.
Cleland helped the Massachusetts senator win crucial primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire and now goes anywhere he's asked to speak for his party's presidential candidate.
Getting around icebound New Hampshire last winter in a wheelchair or campaigning long hours are the least of his worries after what he has been through. Nearby firefighters can hoist him onto a stairless stage. Aides drive him around in Washington. In Georgia, he dons a prosthetic arm and gets around in a car with hand-operated controls.
His body was so mangled after the grenade explosion that day in 1968 that few expected him to live. His injuries left him facing years of work trying to overcome the physical and emotional scars.
He has handled the task with fierce independence bouncing about on a bed to get himself dressed alone, for instance, instead of accepting help.
"I was younger when I got blown up," he said. "I had only my limbs to lose. This time I had a ... career. It was the losing of the lifestyle, the losing of the sense of purpose."
Cleland lost his staff of dozens, his driver, his $150,000 income. And most important, he said, the emotional support he got from staff and colleagues.
Then, clinical depression set in a major setback for such a gregarious man.
But today, signs of the old Cleland are emerging. He launches into a song during an interview at the Kerry campaign headquarters in Washington. He jokes about his expanding midsection, and talks about shedding tears with his friend Kerry after the Senate loss.
During his 2002 re-election campaign against Republican Saxby Chambliss, Cleland was accused of abandoning a popular President Bush on a vote creating the Department of Homeland Security. Cleland voted for a Democratic version of the bill, which federal employee unions said protected their rights.
Conservative Ralph Reed, who was chairman of the Georgia Republican Party when Cleland lost, said voters punished him for voting for higher taxes and for the homeland-security vote.
"He was out of sync with where the voters of Georgia were on the main issues," said Reed, now chairman of the Bush campaign in the Southeast. "The issue in the campaign was whether or not Max Cleland made the right decision in siding with the employee unions rather than the president."
During his Senate tenure, the attack mode didn't come naturally to Cleland. He was a moderate working with Republicans on some issues.
The 2002 race changed him. Now he is one of the harshest critics of the Bush administration. He has accused them of botching the post-combat period in Iraq and not understanding the impact of war. He tells voters that a combat veteran like Kerry would make a better commander in chief.
"When you're alone out there and just have got a target on your back against an enemy population you can't figure friend from foe, that is a very lonely place," Cleland said.
Coulter, the columnist, calls him the "designated hysteric" for Democrats because he has been sharply critical of Bush's service in the National Guard, which allowed him to avoid serving in Vietnam.
"If we're going to start delving into exactly who did what back then, maybe Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam," Coulter wrote in February. "Cleland lost three limbs in an accident during a routine noncombat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. ... Luckily for Cleland's political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam."
Steve Price burns with anger when he hears Coulter's words. He was there that day, April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh.
"The area where we were in, it was bad," said Price, now a South Carolina agriculture salesman, who was on a nearby hill protecting the landing zone.
Cleland was escorting his platoon to set up a radio relay. He did plan to have a beer later but said he also wanted to make sure the radio job was done right.
Cleland jumped off a chopper and then leaned down to pick up a stray grenade so that it didn't explode when another helicopter landed. Cleland didn't know that a young enlisted man had not secured the pin in his grenade before dropping it.
After the blast, the image of Cleland's mangled body stuck out in Price's mind more than the rest of the destruction and mutilation he saw in the Marine Corps.
Almost everyone who knows Cleland says the Kerry campaign has helped lift his spirits since his Senate loss. It has reconnected him with the "band of brothers" the Vietnam veterans who shared the ugly experience of serving in an unpopular war. It is a bond that first drew him into friendship with Kerry and others who have helped him with the aftermath of wars, both military and political.
"I guess I am a true soldier," Cleland said. "I just want to be out in the field. Don't stick me in the headquarters. I can't stand it. Just send me out there on a mission."
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