My regular reader (Hi Jeff!) will recall that I truly do love learning about history in general and American history in particular. Heck, for over 25 years I’ve done a one-man show as Alexander Hamilton (cough…hamiltonlives.com…cough) around the country. And, as Jeff recalls, I spent over 25 years wearing the uniform of the United States Air Force.
Regular readers will also recall my disdain for Donald Trump, and the political mood he has exploited and fed that now causes formerly reasonable people to doubt actual facts, from elections to vaccines.
But I don’t want to talk about Trump too much today, because we as a nation just suffered a loss that should be noted, and a life that should be celebrated. As a career military officer, I was well aware of the remarkable life of service given to our nation by Max Cleland, who died recently at the age of 79. I hope you remember him too.
Cleland was an Army officer, who suffered horrible wounds during a tour in Vietnam. On an early April morning in 1968, Captain Cleland led a team during the critically important battle of Khe Sanh, to set up a radio relay station atop a nearby hill. As they exited the helicopter, one of his men dropped a live hand grenade which rolled in front of Cleland. Without pausing, Cleland grabbed the grenade to himself where it detonated. The blast destroyed both legs and one arm. He would receive the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and other decorations for his service, and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He was only 25 when he was wounded.
But Cleland wasn’t done serving.
He got involved in the politics of his home state, Georgia, as a moderate and soon found himself elected to the state senate. He would be appointed by Jimmy Carter to run the Veterans Administration, the first Vietnam vet to head that agency. And later he would be elected a US senator from Georgia.
But in the 2002 election, Cleland found himself running for reelection against a man named Saxby Chambliss, a man who sat out the Vietnam War by way of educational deferments and an old high school football injury. But the lack of military service by Chambliss did not stop him from running truly vile commercials in which he, a non-vet, questioned the patriotism of a man who had been a high school basketball star, well over 6 feet tall, but who lost both legs and an arm in service to his country. Even some Republicans like John McCain and Chuck Hagel (both VN vets) were outraged. But the ad that showed Cleland with images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein did the job, and Cleland was defeated.
And so, I guess my point is that Donald Trump didn’t create the current vile and vituperative political climate we find ourselves mired in today. It was here before, where Cleland is an example of the GOP’s quest for power being more important to them than honor, truth and character. As Cassius said long ago in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
During my own quixotic run for the US Congress back in 2008, I wanted Max Cleland’s endorsement. My campaign emphasized my military history and knowledge, and given my district’s heavy military presence, I thought an endorsement from Cleland would be helpful, and, frankly, I wanted to talk to this American hero (as an aside, during the one and only debate, my GOP incumbent opponent, Doug Lamborn, always referred to me as “Professor Bidlack,” rather than as "Lt Col Bidlack" or even "Mister." From his GOP perspective, being a professor — albeit at the US Air Force Academy — was somehow a negative in his voters’ minds).
And so, a call was set up.
Cleland called me on his cell phone while he was being loaded into a van to drive to an event in DC. He divided his words between talking to me and giving directions to the driver. After our basic pleasantries, I heard Cleland say energetically, “No! You have to go the right, first!” and I responded, “Sir? To the right?” He replied no, he was talking to the driver. Then we both laughed and talked about the campaign briefly. He endorsed me and I remain honored by that endorsement to this day.
The campaign of distortion run against a true American hero should have troubled far more people back in 2002. The idea that a political party would run ads attacking the patriotism of a man who left two legs and an arm on the hills of Khe Sanh was outrageous then, and it is outrageous now. Yet, unlike in 2002, we don’t see any prominent Republicans denouncing Trump’s efforts to subvert an election and, well, democracy. Do we have no John McCain’s left in today’s GOP?
Our world is a lesser place for having lost Max Cleland. Our nation has had a great voice stilled. But the lessons taught by Cleland and by his example are still valuable today. Putting others first, putting your nation first, and honoring truth and justice should not be partisan values — they should be nothing less than American values.
Captain Cleland, I thank you for your service, salute.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.