Finding the bottom of American politics these days is as easy as looking up the latest column by Ann Coulter. In fact, it’s the same thing. Her act may be wearing thin now that she has accused half of the population of treason, but don’t underestimate the kooky commentator. Just the other day, she again managed to shock the conscience of any decent citizen who happened to read her latest screed.
Her current target is Max Cleland, the former United States Senator who left three limbs in Vietnam. The courageous Mr. Cleland prevailed over his terrible injury, and the depression that followed; he was appointed Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Clinton administration and then elected to the Senate from his home state of Georgia.
But Ms. Coulter considers him deserving of scorn and denigration-and lies about his service, despite his sacrifice-for one reason alone: Mr. Cleland is a Democrat who dares to speak out against the President.
There was a time when Republicans were the first to defend veterans and the last to attack anyone who had served, regardless of partisan affiliation. That tradition is dead, however, in part because so many of the party’s extremist leaders, who talk loudly about war, managed to avoid military service when their time came. George W. Bush, of course, served far from Vietnam in the Texas Air National Guard’s “champagne unit” at Ellington Air Force Base, apparently thanks to the intervention of his father’s powerful friends.
Now the Democrats seem likely to nominate John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Senator who fought in Vietnam and came home bearing wounds and decorations. Conservatives already have begun to denigrate Mr. Kerry because he joined the antiwar movement when he returned. (The current Republican leadership had their own quiet little antiwar movement: They simply declined to fight, although they thought the war was being fought to save us from godless Chinese communism.)
Inevitably, Mr. Kerry’s war record will be compared unflatteringly with that of the man who calls himself the “war President.” By publicly demanding answers about Mr. Bush’s spotty Guard record, Mr. Cleland attracted the malignant attention of Ms. Coulter.
“Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam,” she writes, claiming that he “lost three limbs in an accident during a routine non-combat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman …. Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.”
Denigrating Mr. Cleland became fashionable in Republican circles in the fall of 2002, when his opponents ran television commercials that flashed his face on the screen with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. That ad offended The Gainesville Times , a daily newspaper in northeast Georgia, which called it misleading, offensive and “an irresponsible and repugnant attack on Cleland’s character and sense of patriotism.”
But that repugnant ad helped Saxby Chambliss-a pompous hack who had obtained several draft deferments-win the Senate race against Mr. Cleland. According to the Coulter definition, that made the ad “patriotic.”
What, then, is the truth about Mr. Cleland? On June 9, 1968, the U.S. Army awarded Capt. Max Cleland a Silver Star “for gallantry in action” at the battle of Khe Sanh, one of the war’s fiercest firefights.
According to the citation, he “distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous action …. When the battalion command post came under a heavy enemy rocket and mortar attack, Capt. Cleland, disregarding his own safety, exposed himself to the rocket barrage as he left his covered position to administer first aid to his wounded comrades. He then assisted in moving the injured personnel to covered positions. Continuing to expose himself, Capt. Cleland organized his men into a work party to repair the battalion communications equipment which had been damaged by enemy fire. His gallant action is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
The 25-year-old captain had volunteered to help relieve the Marines and the Army’s First Cavalry Division trapped at Khe Sanh. The cited action took place four days before the explosion that ripped off both his legs and an arm. The accident occurred while he was disembarking from a transport helicopter, when he reached for a grenade that he thought had dropped from his gear. It had actually been dropped by a new infantryman who had “improperly prepared the grenade pin for easy detonation.”
Yes, Mr. Cleland is a true hero. And those who would mock him don’t know what patriotism means.