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Remembering Max Cleland, former Georgia senator and Vietnam veteran

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to remember former Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee who rebuilt his life after the war by dedicating himself to public service. He died Tuesday at the age of 79. Cleland earned a Bronze Star and Silver Star in combat, then entered politics in 1970, two years after he was injured, winning a seat in the Georgia state Senate. He went on to head the Veterans Administration under President Carter, then became secretary of state in Georgia for 14 years.

Cleland served one term as a Democratic senator from Georgia. But when he ran for reelection in 2002, Republicans led by consultant Karl Rove, who hand-picked his opponent, Saxby Chambliss, questioned Leland's patriotism and implied he was soft on the war on terror. In his memoir, "Heart Of A Patriot: How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed And Karl Rove," Cleland wrote that in his mind, he replayed the grenade explosion again and again that blew away both legs and his right arm.

He found solace by immersing himself in politics and public service. But when he lost his bid for reelection to the Senate, he wrote, he fell into a deep depression. Cleveland returned to Walter Reed Hospital, where counseling medication and veterans, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan, helped him heal. In 2009, he was appointed secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Obama. Terry Gross spoke with Max Cleland in 2009, when his memoir was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Max Cleland, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe your memory of what happened when the grenade that injured you blew up?

MAX CLELAND: Well, I had - it was April 8, '68. The sun was beginning to shine. The monsoons, I thought, were over. We were overlooking the Khe Sanh base. And the siege was broken that day by - our infantry battalion with the 1st Air Cavalry Division was moving into the Khe Sanh perimeter, and they needed a radio hook up on top of a mountain. And I went to do that because I was the signal officer for that unit.

I took a team and set up - tried to set up the signal operation there, but one of my men got off a chopper and dropped a grenade, unbeknownst to me, and I saw it. I turned around. I had my M-16 in my left hand and my steel pot on, my flak vest on. And I reached down with it to get it with my right hand because - thinking it might have dropped off my web gear because I had grenades, and everybody had them. And so the thing went off.

GROSS: You didn't know that the pin was out and that it was live.

CLELAND: No, no, no, no. No, no, no. And so boom. I looked down, and my right hand was gone, and the bone sticking out from the right. And then my right leg was gone. And my left leg was so badly shattered, it was amputated within the hour. I mean, I could see it off to the left in my boot. And I felt this massive burning sensation. I couldn't speak because shrapnel had fractured my windpipe. And I was calling for help. And I couldn't stand up.

And, you know, the guys on the hill ran toward me, started cutting off my uniform. And I thought, how odd, you know, somebody cutting off my uniform. There I was laying, dying, burning, smoking, as a matter of fact, because I was so close to the flash burns of the grenade that it seared my flesh, which is why I didn't bleed to death right there on the hill.

And within 15 minutes, I was in the division aid station. And an aide gave me a shot of morphine. And I said, do you think I'm going to make it? He said, you just might. In other words, my life hung by the balance 50/50. And I was then flown to a Quonset hut where five doctors saved my life, only to ultimately face the question of, why did I live? Why am I alive? What am I doing here? What's the meaning and purpose of life?

GROSS: You know now that the grenade that blew up was the grenade of a fellow soldier, but you went through years thinking that it was your grenade, that you dropped a grenade, that somehow the pin was out of your grenade and that you were responsible for blowing yourself up?

CLELAND: Yes.

GROSS: How did you find out that that wasn't the case?

CLELAND: Well, by this time, I was in the U.S. Senate. And I had done a program, I think, for the History Channel on combat medics. And I talked about this experience about, you know, picking up the grenade, I thought it might have fallen off my web gear or something like that. The next day, I got a phone call. And my secretary said, there's some guy on the phone. And a guy named Dave Lloyd said he was there on the hill when you got blown up. And I said, well, put him through.

He said, well, it wasn't your grenade. I said, how do you know that? He says, because I was the first to you. And I said, you were? And he said, yeah, I remember cutting your uniform off and using my weapon belt as a tourniquet on your left leg. And I said, only somebody that was there would have known that.

So it wasn't my grenade. It wasn't my fault. And it was the fault of the, I think, the new guy who was getting off the chopper and who had - after Dave Lloyd went to me, he went to the other guy and found out that he had grenades still with the pins loose and they took them off of him because he was a walking time bomb.

GROSS: So let's get to the existential crisis after this happened to you. You know, now you're - you have only 1 of 4 of your limbs left. And you have visions of, like, lying on the - on your back for the rest of your life. Your dream had always been to get into politics and to become a senator. Before going to Vietnam, you'd been an intern for a senator, so you'd been to the Oval Office. You'd been to the Senate, and that's the life you wanted. So you decided to run for office. You ran for the state Senate and won. What was it like to campaign when you were so physically compromised?

CLELAND: Oh, yeah. You got that right. In my first campaign in 1970, virtually immediately after I got my limbs, ultimately, from the VA, as soon as I got home, I realized, you know, nobody was going to give me a job. Nobody's going to do something for me. Whatever. I was living at home with my parents. I said, this is not what I want. I'm 28 - 27, 28. And so wait a minute. This isn't the life I envisioned. So I got to get up and do something.

So I put on my artificial limbs. My mother and father helped me in the mornings. I went out. By then, I could drive a car. I had my hand controls on a car. And I wore my limbs. And I did my own campaigning, my own scheduling, my own money raising. I did it all from my mother's desk, for God's sakes. And I'm not sure how I did it, but it was really powerfully difficult. And I had never seen anybody do anything like that. And I did it, though, and it wore me out. Matter of fact, I could only wear my limbs for about six hours, and I would start bleeding in my crotch and whatever, I mean, because they would wear me down. And it was plastic and leather and steel on my skin.

So anyway, it was exhausting, but I had no other alternative if I wanted to get up and out. And believe it or not, nobody thought I could win. I wasn't sure I could win. And I started off way behind the eight ball. And nobody wanted to be the Democratic nominee in that suburban Republican county. So I got the Democratic nomination, won the general election and became Georgia's youngest state senator at the age of 28 and its only Vietnam veteran. This was 1970. And during that campaign, I met a young man named Jimmy Carter, and as they say, the rest is history. In 1977, President Carter appointed me head of the Veterans Administration. I was 34.

GROSS: And then when he was out of office, you were out of a job again.

CLELAND: Exactly. So back to Georgia, back living with my parents. This time I did not wear the limbs. I campaigned in my wheelchair. And I can tell you going up to somebody who has all their limbs and me shaking their left hand with my left hand - and I was right-handed - it was about as awkward as it gets. But ultimately, thank God, I won the Democratic primary and won the final general election and was secretary of state in Georgia for 12 years.

GROSS: You were thinking of running for governor of Georgia. And early on in that - I'm not sure if you'd officially declared yet or not but...

CLELAND: No.

GROSS: You hadn't yet. OK. So you described this period as the first political dirty trick against you. I want you to describe the setup for that dirty trick. And it was dirty...

CLELAND: (Laughter) Well...

GROSS: It's dirty in both meanings of that word.

CLELAND: Well, that's correct. You know, by then, I had discovered phone sex, which wasn't bad (laughter). And a young lady that I was having that phone sex with, you know, she, unbeknownst to me, was friends with two adult males who were Republican, and they wanted to trap me because they saw me as a threat of running for governor in 1990 or so. So I was embarrassed terribly because they taped me on the phone and then they distributed that tape to a television station.

GROSS: They taped the phone sex conversation.

CLELAND: Right, exactly.

GROSS: And they put her up to this, right?

CLELAND: That's correct. That's correct. And then to the newspaper and all that kind of stuff. So it knocked me out of running for governor. And that was - you know, that was the way it was. But that was the first indication that the other side would go to any lengths to beat me.

GROSS: You say something very funny about this incident. You say that made it impossible for you to run for governor. It was very embarrassing. But at the same time, it raised your political profile because everybody knew who you were after this. And it proved that despite your handicaps, it proved you were a full red-blooded American male who had not lost his sex life or the requisite machinery. The tape proved it.

CLELAND: (Laughter).

GROSS: Do you think that there were doubts about your requisite machinery that could have been a liability in an election?

CLELAND: Oh, I think that people see people in a wheelchair or missing limbs or whatever, and they think, subconsciously maybe, less of them. They think that they're unable to perform certain tasks, not necessarily sexually but just in general. Now, trust me, the fact that I'm human and an all-American male and still am, you don't want to particularly advertise that on a billboard or a TV shot, but you would assume that people would make that connection. However, a friend of mine told me after this incident that, well, this really helped you probably down in South Georgia (laughter). So I said, oh, my God. So it happened, but what I learned out of it was the fact that the other side would try to wipe you out and kill you. And they would do anything to do it.

DAVIES: Former U.S. Senator Max Cleland speaking with Terry Gross in 2009. Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "RETURN TO HOT CHICKEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2009 interview with Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Senator Max Cleland. He died Tuesday at the age of 79.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's get to the campaign against you when you lost your Senate seat in 2002 in a campaign against the Republican Saxby Chambliss. There's a very now famous ad that he ran against you and that he pulled and revised a little bit and then put back on the air. Would you first describe the original ad?

CLELAND: Well, keep in mind that I lost both legs and my right arm in Vietnam and that Senator Chambliss never went to Vietnam at all - matter of fact, got out by a number of deferments on a trick knee. So to insinuate in any way that I was unpatriotic or not supportive of the country was criminal, really. And that's why I mentioned Karl Rove because it was the Karl Rove strategy based on the Lee Atwater idea, which Karl Rove got from him. And that is that you if you have weak positives, then you go after your enemy's negatives. You try - your whole purpose of a campaign is to drive your negatives - your opponent's negatives up, even after you - have to go after their military service. Now, therein lies the problem.

Now, anything one does in public life is fair game. I understand that. I get that. Thomas Jefferson said public office is public property. I get that. But we're talking about military service here. This started out with McCain in South Carolina where the five of us remaining Vietnam veterans in the Senate all wrote a letter defending him against the attacks, then the campaign against me in 2002 and then the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004. That was all calculated to take away an asset that we possessed, namely our military service, and drive our negatives up. Now, the ad against me showed bin Laden, and then it showed Saddam Hussein and their pictures and whatever and then morphing into my face. Now, that's crazy. That's crazy to indicate that I had - or to look like I had anything to do with bin Laden or Saddam Hussein was nuts. But the insinuation was that I couldn't defend America, that I - that somehow my votes in terms of amendments in committee on the Homeland Security bill were somehow translated into not being able to defend the country. As a matter of fact, I was one of the sponsors of the Homeland Security bill and fought for its passage. So all of that ad was basically a set of lies. But that's the extent to which those guys will go to win their elections.

GROSS: Well, because of protests against that ad, the ad was modified so that the - explain how the visual part of it was modified.

CLELAND: The protest came from McCain and from Chuck Hagel...

GROSS: Both Republicans.

CLELAND: ...Two Republicans, two Republican senators, my colleagues in the Senate and two fellow Vietnam veterans. And so supposedly, the ad was modified a little bit. But the point was made. The point, ultimately, is that this - your military service should stand, one way or the other.

GROSS: Well, I should say in the modified ad, you were no longer visually...

CLELAND: (Laughter).

GROSS: What?

CLELAND: Well, the damage had already been done.

GROSS: How many times was it showed, the original one, before it was modified?

CLELAND: You can't not say that you're a liar. You know, you can't say, oops, I didn't mean that. So in so many ways, that shows what American politics has become. Bad campaigning results in bad governance.

GROSS: Now, you write that when you lost your Senate seat, your way of coping with life after Vietnam fell apart, that the pleasure of having a job worth doing and the money to keep you afloat were gone. You and your fiancee broke up, also, and it plunged you into this, like, terrible depression.

CLELAND: Right.

GROSS: Can you talk about what it was like to lose your job, to lose your sense of purpose? I mean, the only real jobs that you'd had, you know, after the military and after you lost three of your four limbs was elected office and then being...

CLELAND: That's correct.

GROSS: ...Appointed to the VA by President Carter. So I mean, your life had been politics.

CLELAND: That's right. And I had used politics and public service - and I am public service. That's what I do. I'd used that as my way of coping, of my way of fitting back in, of my way of finding my place in life and society. It was my way of earning an income, of having a little staff around me, of having an office, of something of a place to go to, you know, a way to survive. So politics became that for me. When I lost it, I lost everything. I lost my way of coping, only to find myself hitting bottom in every way in which you can hit bottom and finding myself back at Walter Reed in PTSD counseling, in massive depression, dealing with how in the world am I going to get a grip on my life anymore?

GROSS: Do you feel like you've been able to make peace with yourself, peace with the fact that what happened happened, peace with the fact that your body is so compromised and that you can't have what average people with average bodies have. Have you been able to make peace with that, or does it still make you angry every day?

CLELAND: I have my anger. I have my deep anger. When I see people running laps up and down the street, I wish I could do that. I try to do my own little laps in my apartment on pillows and stuff. I wish I could do that. I wish I could do a whole host of things I used to be able to do. So I think that makes it more important what I can do. And what I could do was run for public office and do those kind of things. When I couldn't do that anymore, then that's really when I hit bottom emotionally and spiritually. And - but I'm coming out of it because I've been there. I've been to a place where I didn't want to live anymore. And I understand that place, but it's not ultimately true.

GROSS: As the former head of the Veterans Administration under President Carter, do you feel like you get adequate veterans benefits now?

CLELAND: I do. Now, the guys coming back and gals coming back - boy, who can replace what they have lost? Who can administer to their needs? They've seen war. They've been part of war. And we have a whole host of things we need to do. And that healing for them really has only just begun.

GROSS: But do you think they're getting adequate benefits?

CLELAND: It's not so much a question of benefits as it is...

GROSS: ...Or care.

CLELAND: ...The question - well, the question of, did what I do have any meaning and purpose for the America that I love? That's the question. And so they'll be spending the rest of their lives trying to establish that meaning.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like when you ask yourself that question in terms of Vietnam, your answer is no, not really.

CLELAND: That's correct. But I'm still here, you know. I'm still alive. And I try to make the best of it.

DAVIES: Former U.S. Senator Max Cleland spoke with Terry Gross in 2009, when he just published his memoir "Heart Of A Patriot: How I Found The Courage To Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed And Karl Rove." Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79.

Coming up, the battle to keep independent local journalism alive. We'll speak with Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake, Iowa, Times, whose paper is profiled in a documentary on PBS next week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "A NEARER SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.