For Max Cleland, Politics Was A Refuge From War The former senator recalls how a traumatic accident in wartime led to a political career that spanned four decades. In an interview with NPR's Renee Montagne, he discusses his new memoir, Heart of a Patriot, and his solidarity with young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
NPR logo

For Max Cleland, Politics Was A Refuge From War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For Max Cleland, Politics Was A Refuge From War

For Max Cleland, Politics Was A Refuge From War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


As a young man, Max Cleland lost both legs and his right arm to a grenade in Vietnam. Years later, he went on to lose his Senate seat as a Georgia Democrat after being labeled unpatriotic. Patriotism became an issue largely because of this ad

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead.

MONTAGNE: On the screen are images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein that jump quickly to shots of then-Senator Cleland. He is not shown in his wheelchair. This campaign, two years before the swift boat ads against John Kerry, was brutal, and the dark aftermath led Max Cleland to write a memoir called "Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove."

It begins long before battlefields and campaign trails, in small-town Georgia. Take us back to your boyhood and what reads as an idyllic childhood. Your big hero was the Lone Ranger.

Mr. MAX CLELAND (Former Democratic Senator, Georgia): Oh yes. I grew up with my cowboy heroes. And basically I played ball, I did well in school. My mother and father did a beautiful job in raising me, and they raised me to be an eagle not a sparrow.

And so I went on to Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, I went into ROTC, volunteering for Vietnam - the war of my generation - and I felt it was my obligation to serve.

MONTAGNE: And once you got there, just a month before you were due to go home, you volunteered for a particularly dangerous mission. Tell us about that mission and what made you volunteer for it.

Mr. CLELAND: Ive replayed that a million times in my own mind. April 8, 1968, at the Siege of Khe Sahn, there were some 5,000 Marines pinned down in a siege. And I was asked to go set up, as the communications officer for this (unintelligible) battalion, to go set up on another hill a radio relay site so that the battalion could move into the Khe Sahn perimeter.

In getting off the helicopter, there was a new guy on there. That new guy had unpinned his grenades and he became a walking time bomb, unbeknownst to us. As he jumped off the chopper, he left fall one of the grenades. I got off the chopper, saw the grenade, turned around and reached for it with my right hand -my M-16 was in my left hand - and the thing blew up. It blew off my legs and my right arm instantly, basically.

And I was laying there on a ground smoking, dying, but I have fought for survival all my life since then.

MONTAGNE: How did you come to terms with living with what many would view as an unthinkable injury? I think you viewed it that way, moments after.

Mr. CLELAND: I am still amazed when I wake up in the morning at what I've lost. But then I'm amazed also, kind of, at what I have. I'm amazed that I'm even awake; I'm amazed that I'm even alive. And so it's a moment-by-moment daily battle, which I began to overcome, physically first, and then emotionally, in the sense in which I focused on something outside myself, which for me became politics and running for public office.

That's where politics and public office became to mean so much to me. It meant survival. It meant a purpose and destiny. And when I lost in 2002, all of that was gone. And that's when I discovered I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, that if you take away my safety, my organization and my stability, I'm back dying on the battlefield.

MONTAGNE: You have brought us up to the moment that we started with, which is the loss of your Senate seat. And it turned out to be a terrible fall for you, a terrible plunge into darkness.

Mr. CLELAND: That's correct. For those of us who have trauma, massive trauma especially, in our early lives - and that's our young people we send to war -they carry that feeling of helplessness, trauma, in their minds. It's stuck there. And that is a terrifying place and they need some help.

MONTAGNE: You did vote to give President George W. Bush the power to wage war in Iraq in the year 2002, just before that year's elections. Why did you vote for that?

Mr. CLELAND: Looking back, I think I was trying to protect my rear end, because Bush was 68 percent popular in my state. But we were told that there were weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein might even have some nuclear material there. That was all false, it was a lie, it was bull feathers.

MONTAGNE: A lot of people would have come to know you for your losing run for reelection to the Senate in 2002. It was something of a story. The basics are that the Republican Party targeted your Senate seat. And as part of the Republican strategy, you were painted as unpatriotic. How did they do that?

Mr. CLELAND: They did it with media, with television and with money. There's plenty reasons to go after me, but my military service is not one of them, especially when I was running against a guy that got out of going to Vietnam with a trick knee and multiple deferments.

He somehow became the American patriot and I became somehow less than that. That is crazy.

MONTAGNE: Why did it stick?

Mr. CLELAND: President Bush came down five times against me. Karl Rove came down and personally picked my opposition and went after my, in effect, military service and patriotism. That is why I have written "Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove."

MONTAGNE: Throughout the book you quote Ernest Hemingway, and it's a phrase that obviously means a lot to you. It's strong in all the broken places.

Mr. CLELAND: Right. Hemingway was wounded in World War I. He was an Italian ambulance driver - he couldn't get in the American military, so he volunteered for the Italian army - and was involved in a rocket artillery barrage and he almost lost his leg. He came home and was greeted as a hero. But, of course, he didn't feel like a hero.

And in 1929 published, a book called "A Farewell to Arms." There he had the phrase: the world breaks us all, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places. He didn't say all. It is possible, I have found, by the grace of God and the help of great friends, regardless of what we go through - war, political loss, loss of job, spouse, whatever - it is possible to become strong even at the broken places in our lives.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. CLELAND: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Max Cleland's new memoir, in collaboration with Ben Raines, is called "Heart of a Patriot." An excerpt and photos from his life are at

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.