Max Cleland serves as an inspiration to many people across the nation for his ability to overcome tragedy and his dedication to public service. During his thirty-two-year political career he served in the legislative and executive branches of government, at both state and federal levels. He was the first person ever to receive more than a million votes in a Georgia election.
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. There he became an ally of Jimmy Carter’s, and the two developed a friendship that would endure for decades. Carter supported Cleland in his unsuccessful contest for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governorship in 1974 and then named him to head the Veterans Administration when Carter became U.S. president in 1977. Cleland was the youngest person, and the first Vietnam veteran, ever to head the agency. Cleland was seen as a sympathetic ear for other veterans, many of whom became his political supporters.
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, Ben Fortson, died. Cleland won the tough 1982 Democratic primary and then the general election. As secretary of state, Cleland was charged with enforcing regulations affecting commerce, industry, and licensing in the state, as well as maintaining the state’s records and overseeing elections. Reelected in 1986, 1990, and 1994, Cleland actively and successfully advocated changing voter registration procedures to make it easier for college students and minorities to participate in Georgia elections. In his reelection campaign of 1990, Cleland garnered more than a million votes, breaking the record for the most votes cast for a candidate in a Georgia election. During his time as secretary of state, Cleland wrote an autobiography entitled Strong at the Broken Places, which was initially published in 1980. In it Cleland discusses the physical, intellectual, and emotional challenges his injuries and career have brought him.
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 Georgians and well respected in Washington, D.C., by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The Republican nominee that year was a congressman from Moultrie, Saxby Chambliss, who proved to be an outstanding campaigner and fund-raiser. As polls began to indicate that Cleland was vulnerable, U.S. president George W. Bush made three trips to the state on behalf of Chambliss. Bush helped him make the case that Cleland was a less reliable vote for the president in the Senate than Chambliss would be. This led to Cleland’s defeat in November 2002.
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.