Let Us Now Salute Max Cleland

There is a larger band of brothers

You didn’t see this if you are a captive of network TV and its local affiliates: the introduction of John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention by a man named Max Cleland.

The opening shot on C-Span was a big happy Nordic face and an arm raised high. Kerry’s “band of brothers” was already in rough formation on stage, so you knew this new and weirdly joyful man was going to be another Vietnam veteran.

The screen line said, “Former U.S. Senator, D-Ga.” I don’t follow Georgia politics (Who can? Like, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., supports President Bush.). So I did not know about Cleland.

But a little research showed that he was defeated in his bid for reelection in 2002 after one U.S. Senate term. The Republican upset was generally attributed to relentless and well-funded Republican attacks on his liberal voting record, along with implicit questions about his patriotism.

The background is worth studying, since one line of attack against Kerry seems to come from the same Republican shop. TV in “targeted” New Mexico, for instance, has been saturated all summer by an ad, carrying the personal approval of President George W. Bush, portraying Kerry as a voter against weapons in “the war on terror.”

The ad is illustrated by images of vanishing Bradley Fighting Vehicles—Poof!—Apache helicopters—Zap!—and unprotected combat soldiers—Fade out—as the narrator tells of vicious votes by Kerry. The Annenberg “political fact check” Web site says of this misleading ad: “In fact, Kerry voted against a few large Pentagon money bills, of which Bradleys, Apaches and body armor were small parts, but not against those items specifically.”

Similarly, according to a Washington Post profile, a TV ad run against Cleland by the successful Republican challenger, Saxby Chambliss, opened with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, then segued to Cleland and berated him for voting against President Bush’s Homeland Security bill. “It didn’t mention that Cleland supported a Democratic bill that wasn’t radically different,” said the Post.

And there were masters of fine distinction who pointed out that Cleland– although he won silver and bronze stars– was not actually, technically, wounded in combat, since the grenade had been dropped by another American soldier. Similarly, the Kerry detractors are saying that he only served 4-1/2 months in Vietnam and that his three Purple Heart wounds were not debilitating. And they call Kerry a complex thinker– these sophists who otherwise praise black-and-white moral certainty in politics.

Anyway, there was Cleland—while the networks were still indulging in their fare of “survivor” shows. There was a true survivor, waving and being cheered. But something was wrong with the picture. Something was odd about the opening shot. Then I caught on: the man was moving unnaturally. Although it never really appeared in any of the shots, Cleland was in a wheelchair of some sort. And it became obvious that he had his left arm raised high, rather than his right, because. . . .

Well, Cleland is a triple amputee. He lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam. He told the convention about returning home in a wheelchair, about getting dumped accidentally on the street in front of the White House during a protest and resolving as he lay in the gutter helpless among cigarette butts “to make something of my life.” The next year he won a seat in the Georgia State Senate, beginning a political career that was halted by the Republican upset in 2002 – “the second grenade in my life,” as he once described it.
Cleland—who has an endearing FDR way of gesturing with his neck and head—told the convention that Kerry is “my brother.” And it was hard to doubt the sincerity of the remark, despite the political setting with the placards waving and 100,000 red-white-blue balloons suspended overhead in nets. It’s not that Cleland and Kerry served together in Vietnam, as did the band of other brothers who were on his Swift boat.

There is a larger brotherhood—and I’ve known some Vietnam veterans—that goes beyond combat. It continues with the common experience of the returning veterans. It was in the midst of this experience that Cleland first saw Kerry on TV in 1971. Kerry was a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was testifying before Congress. “He gave me hope,” Cleland told the convention.

The Vietnam veterans, you might recall, were in a tough situation. Far from being honored as heroes on their return home, they were generally ignored and sometimes vilified as “baby killers” by the typical war protesters, who didn’t have a clue. Of course, their opposites, well groomed young politicians talking patriotism, didn’t have a clue either.

And now some of them have brought us the war in Iraq. It’s important that no one setting war policy in this administration has seen actual combat, except Colin Powell, and he has been sidetracked. (This comes from Bob Woodward, “Plan of Attack.”)

Bill Clinton also was a president without combat experience. His foreign policy, I would argue, was based mostly on domestic issues—such as the protest against the Taliban by the American “Feminine Majority” for reasons that had nothing to do with national security. Such was Clinton’s provincial narcissism.

Now, the patriots, I recall, made a lot out of the symbolic issue of Clinton using the military salute as commander in chief. He got into the habit of saluting his Marine guards when he stepped out of the presidential helicopter, and so forth. The patriots said a draft dodger had no right to use that gesture of respect and honor.

OK. So when Kerry finally appeared, after Cleland’s introduction and Spielberg’s inadequate video (Spielberg doesn’t have a clue either), and the networks had finally cut in, Kerry began, as Jimmy Carter used to: “My name is John Kerry. . . .” But instead of continuing, like Carter, “. . . and I’m running for president,” Kerry said, “. . . and I’m reporting for duty.”

Then, he gave a crisp military salute. I cringed. But on seeing the reruns, I thought, “No, that took some balls.” If Bush can dress up like a pilot, Kerry can salute. Kerry earned that privilege. He was a soldier.