Max Cleland Did Not Deserve What Rick Wilson Did to Him

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Photo credit: Tom Williams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Williams - Getty Images

In 1999, I went to Washington to work on a profile of John McCain for this magazine. One of the interviews I set up was with Senator Max Cleland, Democrat of Georgia. Cleland was a friend of McCain’s. Both of them were Vietnam-era veterans, and both of them had come out of that fiasco severely damaged—McCain from having been tortured, and Cleland from having lost both legs and one arm to a grenade outside of Khe Sanh. He had made a life and political career for himself. He was ferocious fighter for veterans and for the rights of the disabled. He’d been elected to the Senate in 1997 to replace Sam Nunn.

Anyway, I was told that I had a half-hour with Cleland. After an hour and a half, we both realized we had been going on for a while. It was one of those great interviews that turn into a conversation between strangers, both of whom find the other interesting. He was a big, bluff guy who laughed easily and wasn’t shy about making jokes about his missing limbs. I liked him a great deal.

Max Cleland died on Tuesday at the age of 79. He had been ill for some time. He had not been in the Senate since January of 2003, and thereby hangs a lesson for our current political moment.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, you may recall that President George W. Bush, installed by the Supreme Court after losing the popular vote by half a million, had called for national unity in the face of a monstrous tragedy. By and large, he got it. However, his political operation, run by the execrable Karl Rove, looked at the nearly 3,000 dead Americans and saw an arsenal of political weapons they could use in the midterm elections of 2002.

Photo credit: Thomas S England - Getty Images
Photo credit: Thomas S England - Getty Images

Cleland was running against a Republican named Saxby Chambliss, a nonentity who’d been deferred during the Vietnam War because of an old high-school football injury. While in the Senate, Cleland had voted for the Bush tax cuts in 2001, and for the invasion of Iraq, which he later called the worst vote of his career. But as legislation to set up the new Department of Homeland Security sailed through Congress, Cleland fought to give the employees of that department union protections. And that was opening enough for the ratfckers to get him.

Rove called on an ambitious conservative ad man named Rick Wilson to put together one of the most scurrilous attack ads since Lee Atwater gave Willie Horton his turn at centerstage. The ad opened with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and the point of the ad was that Max Cleland, who left half his body in a war zone, lacked the gumption to "lead" during the time of terror.

The veterans in Congress went through the rotunda dome. McCain thundered condemnation. Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, threatened the Republican National Committee that he’d go to Georgia personally to campaign for Cleland if the ad didn’t come down. John Kerry of Massachusetts kept inveighing against the tactics behind the ad all the way to his own presidential nominating convention in 2004. (Kerry saw the same greasy hands behind that ad as behind the inexcusable Swift Boat attacks on his own war record.) However, by the time Kerry was nominated, Saxby Chambliss had been in the Senate for a year. The ad was the final nail in Cleland’s political coffin. The ad worked.

But the ad wasn’t through with Max Cleland. It triggered a dormant case of PTSD, and Cleland spun into a deep depression. When he published a memoir in 2009, Cleland gave a long interview to history.net:

It’s part of my own therapy, my own healing. Those of us who suffer need to talk about it and write about it. I didn’t really have a connection to the suffering of those who have what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder—I call it “post-war stress”—in which you never quite get over what’s happened to you, but you move on. But after I lost the Senate race in 2002, my life collapsed. I went down in every way you can go down. I lost my life as I knew it.

It took me right back to Vietnam, right back to the battlefield, right back to the wounding. And I had to work through all that stuff. It took me years of counseling and years on medication, and it’s been several years of just writing. I had to make sense of it all.

It never made any sense. It was destruction for destruction’s sake. In 2016, Rick Wilson gave an interview to Cracked in which he talked about the ad that helped wreck Max Cleland’s career and came very close to ruining his life.

"The Cleland ad was powerful because it went to his strengths," Wilson explains. "Everyone assumed Cleland was immune to critiques on national security issues ... we found a lot of votes where he'd voted the wrong way ... we tested those messages and discovered those messages were very effective against Cleland ... they didn't calculate that I have no moral center when it comes to political ads, and I will destroy the innocent and the guilty …”

Max Cleland didn’t deserve this, and the fact that it worked proved American politics didn’t deserve Max Cleland. Also, that some sins are mortal and unforgivable. Also, that nothing that happened in the past five years started with Donald Trump. Rest in peace, Max Cleland, and may his memory be a blessing.

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