His authoritative Georgian drawl is no longer heard within the Senate chamber, but he is far from silenced. Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) now delivers his oratories inside the classroom.
The life of a Senator is loaded with perks, but Cleland has discovered that academia also has a few of its own.
“You can be more honest in the classroom,” Cleland said with a laugh.
After losing his Senate seat to then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in a bitter midterm election, the one-term Senator was out of a job and in need of a new challenge. American University came calling, and he joined the university part-time as distinguished professor for the AU Washington Semester Program and as a fellow in the Center for Congressional Presidential Studies.
Cleland is a 1963 alumnus of the Washington Semester Program, which brings college students to study and intern in D.C. He credits the program with stimulating his interest in politics and motivating him to become politically active.
“I was a shaggy dog run over by the election,” the 60-year-old Cleland said. “I miss the Senate a lot, but I have to put that behind me and put my trust in the Lord that he will work things out.”
He declined to discuss his loss to Chambliss or the 2002 election in general.
In the meantime, the Washington Semester Program has given Cleland a place to hang his hat and the chance to interact with students during his transition from public to private citizen. He jokes that while he is technically only a part-time paid employee, the university has become his full-time hangout.
He can often be found in the Tenley campus cafeteria grabbing a bite and gabbing with students about topics ranging from politics and the war to their personal experiences in Washington. The “recovering politician” finds his therapeutic solace in speaking to classes of about 30 students assembled from universities across the country and around the world.
He knows first hand the enthusiasm his students have: He came to the Washington Semester Program 40 years ago as a Stetson University history major to witness government in action. Now it is his job to impart the wisdom he culled from his years of experience in the trenches of American politics to the next generation eager be involved in the process.
He’s starting out slow, speaking about once a week to various classes. His current lectures have focused less on his time as an elected official and more on the current war. He discusses the war in Iraq and the implications of war from both a historical and personal perspective.
The Vietnam War veteran and triple-amputee speaks candidly in the classroom about the actual cost of war and the impact it will have on his students’ generation. Recounting his own war experiences, Cleland carefully draws parallels between the war in Vietnam and the current war in Iraq.
“They know what I have to say about war is authentic, and sometimes I’m afraid I overwhelm or scare them,” Cleland said, “but I feel this is what they came for. War is real and I don’t want to gloss over it.”
Cleland, who served on the Armed Services Committee, supported the resolution last October authorizing President Bush to use war to disarm Iraq. But he continues to caution that war “is going to be terribly costly in both blood and treasure.”
And, Cleland maintains, “Osama bin Laden and his militant fundamentalist cadre are not going away even if Iraq does.”
Fighting the war on terror, Cleland said in his thickest of southern drawls, is part of his new job serving on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. He was appointed to the commission in 2002. The commission is scheduled to have its first meeting in late March and early April.
He sees his role and the role of the commission as highlighting the threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists and specifically the threat of Osama bin Laden.
“We have to destroy them, by that I mean kill or capture them,” Cleland said. “That’s the real war we have to fight — Iraq or not.”
The commission has faced criticism for not having acted more quickly in examining the facts and causes related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Cleland readily admits the commission has yet to do much but is looking forward to getting started and focusing attention back on the threat of Osama bin Laden.
The Georgian is also keeping his eye on the growing dispute in his home state over the state flag and whether the Confederate emblem should be put back on it. Two years ago former Gov. Roy Barnes (D) removed the confederate emblem from the flag, citing its ties to slavery and segregation, and replaced it with a new flag without a public vote. The new governor, Sonny Perdue (R), responding to controversy, wants the issue put on the ballot. The issue is in front of the Georgia House.
“Ultimately the flag of Georgia belongs to the people of Georgia and at some point they have to be involved in the decision,” Cleland said.
Don’t look for Cleland’s name on a ballot in the near future. The former Senator said at this time he has no plans to run for office again anytime soon.
There has been speculation he would run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who is not seeking re-election in 2004. Cleland said he is “not now” entertaining such thoughts himself.
He remains hopeful about the Democratic Party and is confident the cyclical nature of American politics will once again rally around the Democrats, if not him specifically.
“The elections will be coming at a time of maximum crisis in terms of the war abroad and the economy. We are entering a period where chaos may reign,” Cleland said. “And chaos does not normally work to the advantage of the incumbents.”