In his new job, Max Cleland is supposed to get young people all fired up with idealistic zeal for politics, but that won't be easy. These days, Cleland, a Georgia Democrat defeated in his bid for reelection to the Senate last fall, is angry, bitter and disgusted with politics.
"The state of American politics is sickening," he says.
Cleland has come full circle. In 1963, he arrived at American University's Washington Semester Program as a naive student and left dreaming of a career in the Senate. Now, after six years in the Senate, he's back at the Washington Semester Program, this time as a "distinguished adjunct professor.''
But he lost a few things along the way. In 1968, he lost his right arm and both legs in Vietnam. Last fall, he lost his Senate seat in a campaign that became a symbol of nasty politics.
Cleland, 60, is still livid over a now-infamous TV commercial that Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss ran against him. It opened with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, then attacked Cleland for voting against President Bush's Homeland Security bill. It didn't mention that Cleland supported a Democratic bill that wasn't radically different.
"That was the biggest lie in America -- to put me up there with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and say I voted against homeland security!" he says, his voice rising in anger.
"I volunteered 35 years ago to go to Vietnam and the guy I was running against got out of going to Vietnam with a trick knee! I was an author of the homeland security bill, for goodness' sake! But I wasn't a rubber stamp for the White House. That right there is the epitome of what's wrong with American politics today!"
He's sitting in a booth in the Ruby Tuesday restaurant near his office at American University, his wheelchair leaning against a wall nearby. A salad and a glass of water sit on the table but he ignores them as he continues to vent. He's mad about the campaign but he's even madder about the war in Iraq.
Last fall, Cleland voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq, but now he feels he was bamboozled.
"I voted for it because I was told by the secretary of defense and by the CIA that there were weapons of mass destruction there," he says. "The president said it, Colin Powell said it, they all said it. And now they can't find them! Our general over there, who has no dog in this fight, he said he sent troops all over the place and they found two trailers and not much of anything else. So we went to war for two trailers?"
The war in Iraq is beginning to look awfully familiar to Max Cleland.
"Now wait a minute," he says. "Let me run this back: We have a war. A bunch of Americans die. After the war, we try to figure out why we were there. There's a commitment of 240,000 ground troops with no exit strategy. You know what that's called? Vietnam! Hey, I've been there, done that, got a few holes in my T-shirt."
When the subject changes to his days in the Washington Semester Program back in 1963, Cleland's voice softens and his eyes light up.
"I was tall, tan and tantalizing," he says, smiling. "I was 21 years old and the world was my oyster."
He was a kid from Livonia, Ga., a mediocre student at Stetson University in Florida, a tennis and basketball jock who'd changed majors twice -- going from physics to English to history. He was drifting through life, he says, until he was accepted into AU's Washington Semester Program, which promised an opportunity to see "government in action."
"I was more interested in action than in government," he says with a lascivious laugh.
He remembers the exact day he arrived -- Sept. 10, 1963. John F. Kennedy was president and Washington seemed like the most exciting place on the planet. Cleland stood on Pennsylvania Avenue to see JFK drive past with Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie. He sat in the Senate gallery and watched debates on civil rights. He saw radical students arrested at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. And on Nov. 19, 1963, he and some other WSP students were permitted to visit the Oval Office when JFK wasn't around.
Three days later, the president was assassinated. When Cleland heard the news, he hustled to the White House and saw Lyndon Johnson arrive by helicopter. A few days later, he stood on a tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery to see Kennedy buried.
Moved, he decided he'd go into politics, to help continue Kennedy's work.
"I was deeply motivated, really feeling that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans," he says. "I was 21, full of vim and vigor and idealism, and I was ready to make my impact on the world."
He graduated from Stetson with a history degree, earned a master's in history at Emory University, then returned to Washington in 1965 as a congressional intern. By then, war was raging in Vietnam, and Cleland, still fired with idealism, joined the Army.
On April 8, 1968, during the siege of Khe Sanh, he stepped off a helicopter and saw a grenade at his feet. He thought he'd dropped it. He was wrong. When he reached down to pick it up, it exploded, ripping off both legs and his right hand. He was 25.
He spent eight months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital. On one of his first trips out of the hospital, an old girlfriend pushed him around Washington in his wheelchair. Outside the White House, the chair hit a curb and Cleland pitched forward and fell out. He remembers flopping around helplessly in the dirt and cigarette butts in the gutter.
He returned home to Georgia in December 1969. "I had no job, no girlfriend, no car, no hope," he says. "I figured this is a good time to run for the state Senate. And politics became my therapy, forcing me to get out of the house and be seen."
In 1970, at 28, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Georgia Senate. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed him to head the Veterans Administration. In 1982 he was elected as Georgia's secretary of state. In 1996 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating businessman Guy Millner in a very close race.
In the Senate, he was a moderate -- liberal on social issues, conservative on fiscal matters. He was a reliable vote for increased military spending, but wary of committing U.S. troops overseas. He criticized President Bill Clinton's bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999, saying that was starting to "look like Vietnam." In 2001, he broke with Democrats to vote for Bush's tax cuts.
As the 2002 reelection campaign began, Cleland knew it would be a close race, but he had no idea how nasty it would get.
The Infamous Ad
The Senate was evenly split, with Democrats and Republicans fighting for control. Georgia was a close race, and both parties poured money into the campaign. Bush came to the state five times to campaign for Chambliss, a conservative congressman who'd been elected in the "Contract With America" class of 1994. Both sides ran attack ads, but none was as controversial as Chambliss's homeland security spot.
It opened with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. "As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators," said a narrator, "Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that's not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush's vital homeland security efforts 11 times!"
Immediately the ad was denounced, not just by Democrats but also by two Republican senators -- John McCain and Chuck Hagel, both of them Vietnam veterans.
"I've never seen anything like that ad," says McCain. "Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to a picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield -- it's worse than disgraceful, it's reprehensible."
Irate, Hagel told Republican officials that if they didn't pull the ad, he would make an ad denouncing them. After that, Chambliss's campaign removed the pictures of Hussein and bin Laden from the ad.
"Max Cleland has given as much to this country as any living human being," Hagel says. "To say he is in some way connected to people like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein was beyond offensive to me. It made me recoil, quite honestly."
Asked recently for comment, Chambliss responded through a spokesman that he did not want to discuss the ad or Cleland.
On the eve of the election, polls showed Cleland leading. But they failed to predict a huge turnout by rural white males angered that Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes had removed the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Both Barnes and Cleland were trounced.
Surprised and angry, Cleland was devastated by his defeat.
"It was the second big grenade in my life,'' he says. "It blew me up. It happened very quickly and very intensely, and I was left with virtually nothing but my life."
To him, the campaign seemed to symbolize everything wrong with American politics. "When I came to the Senate, I wanted to do the best job I could, but now I found out it doesn't matter what kind of job you do," he says. "It's all about the goal of driving your opponent's negatives up. It's all about trashing the other side."
The day after the election, he flew to the Virgin Islands with his longtime girlfriend, Nancy Ross, and asked her to marry him.
Ross accepted. They have not yet set a date for the wedding. Cleland says he and Ross, a Postal Service executive, have agreed not to discuss their private lives in public. But he did announce the engagement in his farewell speech to the Senate last November.
"I will be married to my fiancee, Miss Nancy Ross, after I retire," he said as she sat in the balcony and blew him a kiss. "There is life after the Senate, and it will be a wonderful life."
That sounded upbeat, but Cleland's friends still worried about him. The usually ebullient Cleland was depressed. The man who'd inspired crowds as a motivational speaker remained morose and despondent for months.
"He was down, just down," says Steve Leeds, an Atlanta attorney and longtime Cleland fundraiser. "I knew how much he hurt and I was concerned for him."
"We could see that he was depressed," says Hagel, "and we tried to rally around him."
In December, Cleland and Ross went to a Washington restaurant for dinner and left Cleland's 1994 Cadillac -- equipped with controls for a handicapped driver -- with a parking attendant. Confused by the controls, the attendant smashed the car into a truck, three other cars and a telephone pole. The Cadillac was totaled.
"It was awful," Cleland says. "It just took me out."
Not long after that, Cleland's old friend T. Wayne Bailey, a Stetson professor, called David Brown, who heads AU's Washington Semester Program. Max is really down, Bailey said, but maybe he'd perk up if he got involved in the Semester Program.
Brown thought that was a great idea. He'd seen Cleland speak to WSP students and he was impressed. So he called Cleland in for a job interview.
Cleland "closed the door and said, 'I'd really like this to be a therapeutic session,' and we talked for an hour and half," Brown recalls. "He really was down. He'd had everything -- a car, a staff and people who took care of him. Now he didn't even have an office. He told me he was using an office in the basement of his apartment building and he said, 'They're gonna take that away to use for a Super Bowl party.' "
Brown offered him a teaching job and Cleland accepted. In the spring semester, he guest-lectured in other professors' classes. This summer, he got a class of his own -- 24 students from around the country who have come here to work as interns at congressional offices and political organizations.
As the first class approached, Cleland was nervous.
"I'm trying to put my life back together," he said, "and one of the ways I'm trying to do it is to get encouragement from young people who come here wanting to be lifted up. Hopefully, we'll lift each other up."
"Let me introduce myself," Cleland said after rolling into class in his wheelchair. "I'm Max."
He wore a white shirt, a blue tie and blue blazer whose right sleeve hung limp and empty. The students wore jeans, shorts, T-shirts. One young woman, working a wad of gum, blew a big pink bubble.
The new teacher explained his pedagogical style: "I don't do lectures," he said. "I just talk a lot."
He announced that he'd provide cookies and coffee for the class, which meets Wednesday afternoons, and recommended frequent snacking.
"Keep your energy up because this is an energy-draining town," he said. "Just being here is draining. Being a target is draining. So keep your energy up."
Things happen fast in Washington, he said, launching into a story about Sept. 11, 2001. He had been sitting in his Senate office with Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were, by pure coincidence, discussing terrorism when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the general was summoned back to the Pentagon, which had not been hit yet.
"You never know what will happen in Washington," he told the class. "In so many ways, it's combat. Sometimes it's low-level combat, sometimes it's high-level. Sometimes you're the target, sometimes you're targeting somebody else. It's a target-rich environment, as they say in the military."
He told stories about his days in the Semester Program in 1963. Some of the stories involved Congress or the White House. Others involved Maggie's, a bar near AU in those bygone days.
"When you said 'Meet me at Maggie's,' " he said, "It was 'Hello, baby! This might be the night!' "
The students cracked up.
Socializing is important, Cleland told them, and he promised the class a social event every week. He appointed Dustin Odham, a Southern Methodist student with a mischievous gleam in his eye, to lead a "recon squad" to find appropriate watering holes.
"You gotta make sure it's safe for the troops," he told Odham, "so you gotta go there first."
Cleland was rolling now. He told stories about Vietnam and the Clinton impeachment trial. He revealed the secret of what goes on in the Senate cloakroom: "They're watching the Braves game." And he offered sage advice for young interns in Washington:
"Make yourself known. Assert yourself a little bit. Everybody else in this town does."
"You'll have rejection. Everybody won't love you. Believe me, I know. It's nothing personal. It's just the way Washington works."
"To build your credibility, you come in early and you stay late. You do a good job and you volunteer for more work. What you want to do is become indispensable."
He'd been talking for well over an hour when he asked the students to answer the question "Why are you here?"
"I wanted to be in Washington," said one.
"I wanted to be where the action is," said another.
"I wanted to learn how interest groups influence government," said Jolana Mungengova, a PhD candidate from Boston University.
"Money," Cleland told her. "That's it. It's all about money, and it's out of control."
The next student was Kasey Jones from Reed College. "I'm sort of an idealist," she said. "I want to change the world and everything, and this is supposed to help me figure out how to do that."
Idealism -- it was the topic he'd been hoping for and dreading since he took this job. He'd thought about it constantly and he knew what he wanted to say. It was the same thing he'd been telling himself since Election Day.
"Let me give you a quote from President Kennedy," Cleland told Jones. "He said, 'I'm an idealist with no illusions.' You'll begin to lose your illusions about things, but that doesn't mean you'll lose your ideals. That's part of life, but it doesn't mean you have to lose your ideals."
The class was scheduled to last from 1 to 3, but at 3:20 Cleland was still going strong and nobody showed any sign of wanting to leave.
"This is gonna be fun," he said, smiling broadly. He'd stripped off his blazer and he sat in shirt sleeves, his eyes bright, his face flushed with enthusiasm. "It's really a joy to see a group of people like you. I need you. We're gonna have a real good time."