I’ve begun paging through copy of Max Cleland’s new book, “Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed, and Karl Rove.”
It is, so far, a compelling read, but highly uncomfortable _ perhaps especially if you know him.
Cleland wrote a first biography in 1986, called “Strong at the Broken Places.” That book was, at bottom, inspirational campaign literature. He was already secretary of state, but a U.S. Senate campaign was in the offing.
Cleland rose in Georgia politics in large part because of that irrepressible grin and a persona that beamed indefatigable optimism. No little grenade was going to stop him.
“Heart of a Patriot” (Simon & Schuster, $26) has much of the dark stuff that “Strong at the Broken Places” left out: Cleland’s violent transition from a “tall, tan and tantalizing” paratrooper to a triple amputee, the first visit from his parents at Walter Reed, his bouts with despair and the black dog of clinical depression _ the pain that someone in public life is required to keep from view.
This is revisionist history, but in the way of a man who has no more reason to couch his personal story in Kiwanian platitudes. Not self-pitying, but certainly confessional.
A few sentences:
_ “….When I lost my reelection bid for the U.S. Senate in 2002, my life fell apart. The staff that had helped me politically and physically so I could keep on running with no legs was gone. The please of having a job worth doing and the money to keep me afloat were gone. My relationships began to crumble, especially the one with my fiancee.”
_ “From time to time, I am overwhelmed by the sense of meaninglessness I feel regarding the Vietnam War, in which I was a young participant, and the Iraq War Resolution, which I voted for as a U.S. senator. To keep my sanity, I must not dwell on my part in those disastrous episodes in American history. I try not to blame myself too much.”
_ “Whereas we had been treated with respect at Walter Reed, at the VA we were treated like mental patients who needed to be controlled and supervised. We weren’t even allowed to play ping-pong after 4:15 p.m.”
I’d forgotten small things, like the fact that Cleland lost his limbs in the days after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 _ and that he won his first election as a state senator campaigning on a pair of artificial legs, which proved to be pure torture.
The chapter on his 2002 Senate loss reflects Cleland’s lingering anger toward Saxby Chambliss, the Republican who beat him, and the GOP machine _ Ralph Reed is given specific mention _ that helped take him out:
They had trashed John McCain in 2000. They trashed me in 2002. And later, they would “swift-boat” John Kerry. As Kerry told me in 2004, “They took away my service.” That was how I felt.”
Much has already been written about the fact that Cleland raises the possibility that the state’s new touch-screen voting machines might have played a role in his defeat. “I strongly suspect a lot of below-the-radar chicanery” is how he introduces the topic.
But it is only suspicion that Cleland expresses, and that is weakened by the astute analysis that precedes it, in which the former senator links his loss to not just Rovian tactics, but with Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to drop the 1956 state flag and its Confederate battle emblem:
“I lost by 140,000 votes, roughly the same number of whate male voters who were motivated to turn out in an off-year election to show their displeasure over the flag issue. For the first time in years, the percentage of blacks that turned up at the polls came in at below 20 percent.
To be a genuine conspiracy theorist, one must give up one’s grasp of other, indisputable facts. And Cleland has not done that.
And just as a minor correction, African-American turnout in the 2002 general election was 22.6 percent. Black turnout in 2008, with Barack Obama’s election at stake, was 30 percent.
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