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Column: A smile to mask the pain: Remembering Max Cleland
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

The first time I saw Max Cleland, I was a kid of about 10 or 11. He was a young state senator from Lithonia. I had seen a few men who had lost an arm or maybe a finger, but I tried not to stare at this man who had lost one of his arms and both of his legs in a grenade explosion in Vietnam.

I don’t recall ever seeing him over the years that he didn’t have a big grin on his face. He had been a strapping 6-foot-2-inch Army captain and former high school athlete. Now, in his wheelchair, he and I were about the same height. I found myself face to face with him and had been taught by a neighbor the importance of offering a good handshake to a new acquaintance. I put out my right hand and he put out his left, his only one. It was an awkward thing, but our smiles covered for it. He asked me the usual questions, where did I live, what grade was I in and that sort of thing. We smiled again and moved on.

I would not see him again for 10 years. I was working in television in Albany and my news director sent me to cover two events involving Cleland in Adel and Valdosta. After the event in Adel, I got a room at the King Frog motel in Adel, which was about the nicest they had. I went for a swim and Cleland and an aide came by. A few minutes later, he came out of his room and we sat and talked by the poolside.

His service as head of the Veterans Administration had come to an end. He came home to Georgia and was testing the water for a statewide run in 1982. The governor, George Busbee, was term limited and the former secretary of state, Ben Fortson, had died in office. Cleland decided to stay out of the crowded pack for governor and ran for secretary of state, which was held by David Poythress, an appointee of Busbee.

After he was elected, I would see him from time to time and he would give me a big bear hug. “Hi’ya doin,’” he would say.

I sometimes thought, and still do, that Cleland’s beaming smile was a cover for the pain he must experience. There has to be a dark side of waking up each day with three of your four limbs gone and dependence on a wheelchair and others to get through the day.

In 1996, Sen. Sam Nunn decided not to seek re-election and Cleland opted to run and win the Senate seat.

During his Senate service, Cleland was able to push through funds for the Georgia National Cemetery at Canton. I was invited to go with him in an SUV to tour the future site. I remember when we reached the top of that mountain, Cleland seemed awed by the beauty of land, which had been donated by the late developer Scott Hudgins.

After a blistering re-election campaign, which he lost, Cleland went into a deep depression and was almost reclusive. He died on Tuesday of heart failure. I saw him a couple of years ago at a restaurant in Atlanta. He was the same old Max, but he looked tired and worn. He was 79 and had spent more than 50 of those years contending with his war wounds.

Our politics had many dividing points, but I always liked him. We may not have seen eye to eye on a lot of things, but I always admired his courage. Rest well.


Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns publish weekly. 

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