AJC's Rhonda Cook Dusts Off Max Cleland Victimization Meme

A red meat speech to Gwinnett County, Georgia, Democrats was cause for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Rhonda Cook to whip up a 15-paragraph Max Cleland press release just in time for Veteran's Day. Not once were any Georgia Republicans quoted for balance in Cook's November 11 story, as the former senator and Vietnam veteran thundered about impending doom for Republicans both nationwide an in Georgia in 2008. But particularly offensive was how Cook uncritically relayed a tired, discredited liberal Democratic meme that Cleland was ousted from office in 2002 thanks to an ad questioning his love of country:

Democrats were especially angered by Cleland's loss to Saxby Chambliss five years ago because of an 11th-hour television ad in which the Republican challenger questioned the incumbent's patriotism.

Of course, Democrats and longtime Cleland supporters are welcome to think anything they want about the ads that questioned Cleland's voting record, but it's not objectively accurate, and neither Cook nor the AJC should uncritically further the Democratic talking point.

This is hardly the first time liberals have played the Max Cleland-as-a-victim-of-McCarthyism card. National Review's Rich Lowry capably addressed this three years ago (emphasis mine):

This is trumped-up mythology based on the idea that Republicans "questioned Cleland's patriotism" in 2002. Kerry captures it best: "To this day I am motivated by — and I will be throughout this campaign — the most craven moment I've ever seen in politics, when the Republican party challenged this man's patriotism in the last campaign." Democrats make it sound as though Cleland's opponent, the four-term Republican congressman Saxby Chambliss, ran an ad something like this: "Sen. Max Cleland," — cue the ominous music — "is he a patriot? Georgia wants to know."

Of course, nothing remotely like this ran. The case for foul play rests on a tough anti-Cleland ad that Chambliss broadcast featuring Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The ad didn't morph Cleland into either of these figures or say that he supported them. It noted at its beginning that the United States faced threats to its security as the screen was briefly divided into four squares, with bin Laden and Saddam in two of them and the other two filled with images of the American military.

It went on to explain that Cleland had voted 11 times against a homeland-security bill that would have given President Bush the freedom from union strictures that he wanted in order to set up the new department. The bill was co-sponsored by his Georgia colleague Sen. Zell Miller, a fellow Democrat. Bush discussed details of the bill personally with Cleland, and Chambliss wrote him a letter prior to running his ad urging him to support the Bush version. Cleland still opposed it, setting himself up for the charge that he was voting with liberals and the public-employees unions against Bush and Georgia common sense.

If you can't criticize the Senate votes of a senator in a Senate race, what can you criticize? Throughout the race, Cleland tried to hide behind the idea that his patriotism was being questioned. A columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted in June of 2002 that "this 'how-dare-you-attack-my-patriotism' ploy, replete with feigned outrage...is a device to put Cleland's voting records off-limits." It didn't work. Chambliss won the crucial endorsement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which made its nod on the basis of the two candidates' differing records on national-security and veterans issues. The VFW wouldn't have been complicit in a gutter campaign based on smearing a Vietnam veteran.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.