Former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland dies at 79

Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.)
John Amis/AP

Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost both legs and one arm in the Vietnam War and was defeated in his 2002 reelection bid by a Republican who argued he was too soft on terrorism and homeland security, died Tuesday at his home at the age at 79, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. 

A close friend and care giver told the newspaper that Cleland died from heart failure. The family requests that donations be made to the Max Cleland Leadership Program at Stetson University.

Cleland was elected to the Senate in 1996 but only served one term because of his 2002 defeat to GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). 

The election is remembered best for a negative ad from Chambliss that was seen as helping him turn around the race. 

The ad used images of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to paint Cleland as weak on terrorism. It spotlighted Cleland’s vote on an amendment to a chemical weapons treaty that at the time had bipartisan support. Chambliss argued in the ad that the amendment allowed officials from nations that backed terrorism to serve on United Nations inspection teams in Iraq.

Cleland ended up being defeated in the 2002 midterms by 7 percentage points in a tough year for Democrats that defied the conventional wisdom that a president’s party generally loses seats in his first midterm election. Republicans picked up House and Senate seats in the cycle, and took over the Senate majority.

Cleland was born on Aug. 24, 1942, in Atlanta and grew up in Lithonia. He graduated from Stetson University in Florida in 1964, and received a master’s degree from Emory University in 1968, according to a biography from Stetson’s archives.

While in college, Cleland served in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968 with the Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division, during which he attained the rank of captain.

In 1968, while getting out of a helicopter with his radio team to set up a position east of Khe Shan, he was wounded by a grenade that one of his troops accidentally dropped. He lost his right arm and both of his legs as a result.

Cleland began his career in politics in 1971, when he began serving in the Georgia State Senate from then until 1975. He would work on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee until 1977, when he was appointed to serve as the administrator for the Veterans Administration.

Cleland served as the VA Administrator until 1981, and in 1982 became Georgia’s secretary of state. He would hold that role until 1996, when he would be elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.

Tributes poured in quickly on Tuesday amid news of Cleland’s death. 

In a statement released by the White House, President Biden described Cleland as “an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered.”

“I had the distinct honor of knowing Max as both a colleague and a friend during our six years together in the United States Senate,” Biden said. “He was a man of unflinching patriotism, boundless courage, and rare character. I was proud to have Max by my side. He will be remembered as one of Georgia’s and America’s great leaders.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said Cleland was a “kind, selfless, courageous man. He would reach out to me, during some of my most challenging times, to offer words of encouragement. I am grateful for his service and friendship.”

“U.S. Senator Max Cleland sacrificed for and served Georgia and our nation with true integrity,” voting rights activist Stacey Abrams tweeted.

“He defended democracy, spoke up for veterans and embodied a quiet dignity that lifted all who knew him. God’s peace to his family and friends as he takes rest from his labors,” Abrams continued.

–Updated at 10:33 a.m.

Tags Georgia Joe Biden Keisha Lance Bottoms Max Cleland Saxby Chambliss Senate Sheldon Whitehouse

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