Max Cleland (b. 1942)
Joseph Maxwell Cleland, the only child of a working-class family, was born in Atlanta on August 24, 1942. He grew up in Lithonia and attended local schools while dreaming of a career in teaching or politics. He earned a B.A. from Stetson University in Florida, where he studied history and politics, and he continued his education at Emory University, eventually earning a master's degree in history in 1968. A year into his master's program, Cleland entered the army and was eventually deployed to Vietnam as a captain. On April 8, 1968, as Cleland was returning to his barracks, a grenade was accidentally dropped. Cleland reacted quickly by falling upon it, no doubt saving the lives of several soldiers. He lost both his legs and his right hand in the explosion. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Soldier's Medal, and he underwent many months of rehabilitation in army hospitals.
As he grew stronger, Cleland decided to pursue a career in politics. In 1970 he became the youngest member of the Georgia senate.
When Carter was defeated in his second presidential bid in 1980, Cleland, still quite young at thirty-nine, moved back to Georgia and began to contemplate the next stage of his career. He decided to challenge David Poythress, Georgia's popular secretary of state, who had been appointed to the office when the longtime incumbent,
Shortly after Cleland began his fourth term as secretary of state, U.S. senator Sam Nunn announced that he would not run for reelection in 1996. Cleland, who had seriously considered a run for governor in 1990, decided that the time was right for him to make a bid for higher office and resigned from his post to begin his campaign for the Senate. It was a hard campaign, and Cleland had much less money to spend than his Republican opponent, Atlanta businessman Guy Millner. Cleland won the election by less than 1 percent of the votes cast.
Once elected, Cleland, as one of six Vietnam War veterans serving in the Senate, became a part of an unusual coalition. The six, despite being divided along party lines, often worked together and developed close friendships. With Republicans John McCain (Arizona) and Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), Cleland worked on campaign finance reform. With Democrats Chuck Robb (Virginia) and John Kerry (Massachusetts), Cleland discussed military policy and made several impassioned pleas on the floor of the chamber to use caution in U.S. peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans. The sixth member of the coalition, and Cleland's closest friend in the Senate, was the maverick Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. With Kerrey, who had lost a leg in the war, Cleland worked on tax and commerce issues. For the whole of his six years in the Senate, Cleland was a tireless advocate for improving the conditions of armed services personnel. He also concentrated efforts on maintaining a competitive air travel industry and promoting broad and fair access of citizens to their government through voting reform and the use of technology.
In his 2002 reelection campaign Cleland appeared to be in a commanding position, popular among
After his defeat the sixty-year-old bachelor announced plans to marry his longtime sweetheart, Nancy Ross, and to continue his career in public affairs in Washington. Cleland was named to the bipartisan panel investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. He teaches political science classes at American University in Washington, D.C. He also campaigns and raises funds for Democrats around the nation, gives motivational speeches, and serves as an advocate for the physically challenged. He was an early and key supporter of John Kerry's bid for the presidency in 2004.
Cleland's Senate papers are housed at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia.
Max Cleland, Going for the Max: Twelve Principles for Living Life to the Fullest (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1999).
Max Cleland, Strong at the Broken Places (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 2000).
Chris Grant, Mercer University
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