If you’re going to make a comeback, even a quiet one, some backgrounds are more gratifying to the heart than others.
Max Cleland ended seven years of exile from public life this month in a D-Day ceremony on the cliffs of Normandy.
Rolling past an honor guard and a row of wind-whipped flags, the former senator from Georgia served as the official escort of a lanky president and his First Lady during the solemnities at Colleville-sur-Mer.
American news outlets barely took note of Cleland’s presence, but Europe was more intrigued. L’ancien senatuer democrate made the centerfold of Paris Match magazine, beside a sun-splashed Barack and Michelle Obama.
Only 48 hours before, Cleland had received final White House approval as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, placing him in formal charge of this last June 6th observance — and the ones to follow.
“I was there to greet the president, but it was real close,” Cleland said.
The event brought out the historian in the 66-year-old Cleland (masters degree from Emory), who described his new boss’ overseas trip — including that speech to the Islamic world in Cairo — as a “modern turning point” with roots in the sacred ground of Normandy.
“In a strange way, it was all of a piece,” he said.
An Army veteran and triple amputee, Cleland once had the state’s political world by the string. With his optimism and resilience, he became the figure through which many Georgians reconciled themselves to the costs of the Vietnam War.
A position in President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet was followed by 14 years a secretary of state in Georgia, and election to the U.S. Senate in 1996, replacing the legendary Sam Nunn. Cleland’s first day at the U.S. Capitol was a national media event.
But since his defeat by Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002, Cleland has been relatively silent. There have been exceptions — including his 2004 work for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and his appearance in a TV ad for Democrat Jim Martin, who last year challenged Chambliss for re-election.
But otherwise, Cleland hasn’t been part of the national dialogue. That may be about to change, and it has nothing to do with Cleland’s new job.
The Hill, a D.C. newspaper, last week reported that Cleland will publish a new memoir this fall, entitled “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove.”
Cleland confirmed that the book will come out in October, but declined to discuss any details. (One suspects that contractual requirements with a publisher are at play here.)
According to The Hill, the Cleland book will criticize the Bush administration and “hints at a government cover-up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
The book title itself implies a revisiting of the Cleland-Chambliss campaign of 2002. That includes the controversial Republican TV spot that incorporated images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, followed by one of Cleland.
(“Reprehensible,” John McCain said at the time. “Truthful in every way,” Chambliss said during his re-election campaign last year.)
But the newspaper also said the Cleland book will add a new twist, with an avowal that “Georgia’s new all-computerized voting machines were ‘ripe for fraud.’” If so, Cleland would become the first Georgia Democrat of rank to embrace that possibility.
There are many reasons for Democrats to mourn Cleland’s 2002 defeat. Aside from the personable figure that Cleland still cuts, he was the last Democratic link to the power and influence wielded by the likes of Nunn and Richard Russell.
But Gov. Roy Barnes, who was defeated the same night that Cleland lost his Senate seat, quickly dismissed the idea that a corruptible touch-screen voting system might have been at work.
And one Cleland supporter served up a well-timed reminder last week, one that most of us forget:
Cleland was so popular with Georgia Democrats, that he won the 1996 primary to replace Nunn without opposition. But Cleland won the general election that year with only 48.9 percent of the vote.
Even before he became a symbol of harsh, Rovian campaign tactics, Max Cleland was already the personification of Georgia’s new era of divided politics.
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