Liberals are hopping mad about last week's column. Amid angry insinuations that I "lied" about Sen. Max Cleland, I was attacked on the Senate floor by Sen. Jack Reed, Molly Ivins called my column "error-ridden," and Al Hunt called it a "lie." Joe Klein said I was the reason liberals were being hysterical about George Bush's National Guard service.
I would have left it at one column, but apparently Democrats want to go another round. With their Clintonesque formulations, my detractors make it a little difficult to know what "lie" I'm supposed to be contesting, but they are clearly implying ? without stating ? that Cleland lost his limbs in combat.
It is simply a fact that Max Cleland was not injured by enemy fire in Vietnam. He was not in combat, he was not ? as Al Hunt claimed ? on a reconnaissance mission, and he was not in the battle of Khe Sanh, as many others have implied. He picked up an American grenade on a routine noncombat mission and the grenade exploded.
In Cleland's own words: "I didn't see any heroism in all that. It wasn't an act of heroism. I didn't know the grenade was live. It was an act of fate." That is why Cleland didn't win a Purple Heart, which is given to those wounded in combat. Liberals are not angry because I "lied"; they're angry because I told the truth.
I wouldn't press the point except that Democrats have deliberately "sexed up" the circumstances of Cleland's accident in the service of slandering the people of Georgia, the National Guard and George Bush. Cleland has questioned Bush's fitness for office because he served in the National Guard but did not go to Vietnam.
And yet the poignant truth of Cleland's own accident demonstrates the commitment and bravery of all members of the military who come into contact with ordnance. Cleland's injury was of the routine variety that occurs whenever young men and weapons are put in close proximity ? including in the National Guard.
But it is a vastly more glorious story to claim that Cleland was injured by enemy fire rather than in a freak accident. So after Saxby Chambliss beat Cleland in the 2002 Georgia Senate race, liberals set to work developing a carefully crafted myth about Cleland's accident. Among many other examples, last November, Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon: "[D]uring the siege of Khe Sanh, Cleland lost both his legs and his right hand to a Viet Cong grenade."Sadly for them, dozens and dozens of newspapers have already printed the truth. Liberals simply can't grasp the problem Lexis-Nexis poses to their incessant lying. They ought to stick to their specialty ? hysterical overreaction. The truth is not their forte.
One of the most detailed accounts of Cleland's life was written by Jill Zuckman in a lengthy piece for the Boston Globe Sunday magazine on Aug. 3, 1997:
Finally, the battle at Khe Sanh was over. Cleland, 25 years old, and two members of his team were now ordered to set up a radio relay station at the division assembly area, 15 miles away. The three gathered antennas, radios and a generator and made the 15-minute helicopter trip east. After unloading the equipment, Cleland climbed back into the helicopter for the ride back. But at the last minute, he decided to stay and have a beer with some friends. As the helicopter was lifting off, he shouted to the pilot that he was staying behind and jumped several feet to the ground.
Cleland hunched over to avoid the whirring blades and ran. Turning to face the helicopter, he caught sight of a grenade on the ground where the chopper had perched. It must be mine, he thought, moving toward it. He reached for it with his right arm just as it exploded, slamming him back and irreparably altering his plans for a bright, shining future.
Interestingly, all news accounts told the exact same story for 30 years ? including that Cleland had stopped to have beer with friends when the accident occurred (a fact that particularly irked Al Hunt).
"He told the pilot he was going to stay awhile. Maybe have a few beers with friends. ... Then Cleland looked down and saw a grenade. Where'd that come from? He walked toward it, bent down, and crossed the line between before and after." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 5, 1999)
"Cleland was no war hero, but his sacrifice was great. ... Democratic Senate candidate Max Cleland is a victim of war, not a casualty of combat. He lost three limbs on a long-forgotten hill near Khe Sanh because of some American's mistake ..." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sept. 29, 1996)
The story started to change only last year when the Democrats began citing Cleland's lost Senate seat as proof that Republicans hate war heroes. Indeed, until the myth of Republicans attacking Cleland for his lack of "patriotism" became central to the Democrats' narrative against George Bush, Cleland spoke only honorably and humbly about his accident. "How did I become a war hero?" he said to the Boston Globe reporter in 1997. "Simple. The grenade went off."
Cleland even admitted that, but for his accident, he would have "probably been some frustrated history teacher, teaching American government at some junior college." (OK, I got that wrong: I said he'd probably be a pharmacist.)
Cleland's true heroism came after the war, when he went on to build a productive life for himself. That is a story of inspiration and courage. He shouldn't let the Democrats tarnish an admirable life by "sexing up" his record in order to better attack George Bush.