OLEAN -- As I write this, it is July Fourth and a sweltering summer evening when fireworks are thundering and flashing down the hill and across the river from my house. It is an impressive show for such a small city. The neighbors sit out in lawn chairs, chatting as they watch, appreciating the peaceful comfort of where they live.
Perhaps they, too, are thinking about patriotism -- and how much trouble Americans have defining it in their minds. Is it blind loyalty to one's country? Is it one's country, right or wrong? Is it aggressive support for one's president, no matter how controversial his decisions? Is it appreciation of how our government protects us and how democracy gives us a voice in our future? Is it refraining from criticizing national leaders during troubled times? Does wartime make it flower or corrupt it into shallow self-service?
We are not the first generation and the United States is not the first country to ponder collectively how a true patriot should behave. Some think patriotism is the lifeblood of any nation. Others believe it a subtle curse.
The trenchant 19th-century French novelist Guy de Maupassant wrote that "Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched."
British author and critic George Bernard Shaw thought, "You'll never have a quiet world until you knock the patriotism out of the human race."
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer, in his most famous aphorism called it "the last refuge of a scoundrel."
American expatriate poet Ezra Pound felt it would lead you to walk "eye-deep in hell believing in old men's lies."
American poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell deemed it a "pernicious sentiment."
Yet, Sir Walter Scott thought your soul was dead if you weren't a patriot. Shakespeare implied you were "vile" if you lacked patriotism. English essayist Joseph Addison believed it "a pity" that we can die but once to serve our country. Of course, he was alive at the time.
Mulling all this over in this tumultuous time for the United States can make your brain ache. It is probably easier to describe what patriotism is not.
And one thing it is not is exemplified by what happened to Max Cleland.
Of all the U.S. senators I've met, talked with, listened to, joked with, argued with, written about, questioned, admired, or observed, Max Cleland stands out as the one with the best sense of humor, keenest sense of right and wrong, most admirable work ethic, and closest sense of what Joe Sixpack is thinking. He never put on airs. In an exclusive club of preeners and windbags, Cleland managed to retain some humility and memory of where he came from.
Cleland was a rough but charming Georgia boy in the mid-1960s -- an admirer of John F. Kennedy -- who, fired by patriotism, joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam.
In early April of 1968, at the age of 25, he had just jumped off a helicopter near Khe Sanh when a hand grenade went off at his feet. It blew off his right forearm and both legs.
This might have vegged out most men for life, but Cleland, with his immense heart, went on to become the youngest person ever elected to the Georgia Senate, capable head of the federal Veterans Administration, Georgia Secretary of State, and in 1996, U.S. senator from Georgia.
Cleland, ubiquitous in his wheelchair and almost always smiling and talking, added a lot of life to Capitol Hill's august and venerable upper chamber, which can get extremely stuffy most days. Cleland displayed a bawdy sense of humor.
The general public is probably not aware that many wounded and maimed combat veterans of Vietnam celebrate their survival at an "Alive Day" party on the precise anniversary of their injuries. Maimed and disabled peers attend to tell stories, and to tell the guest of honor that they're happy he is still alive.
It's sort of an in-your-face psychological reaction to fate -- a jaunty "Is that all you got?" question to life. Unstoppable men who took the worst war had to offer, were seconds and inches from death, and came back on guts and will power to survive and contribute.
In an Irish pub in Washington a few years back, Cleland and his friends reminisced about the eight months he spent almost 35 years ago in a dim recuperation ward for the severely injured at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the nation's capital. It was called the "snake pit."
As the lonely young combat veterans slowly healed, one of them who was ambulatory was sent out on a quiet evening to recruit a stripper from Washington's risque district and sneak her back into the quiet and mostly unsupervised ward.
She arrived willing but flummoxed to find there was no music available. No radio. No record player. Can't doff my clothes without music, she explained. The men suggested they sing. She said OK. But she was even younger, and her songs were not the ones they remembered from a few years back. Finally, they came up with one everybody knew, including the stripper. She took off her duds to "God Bless America."
This is by now a famous anecdote in Washington, and some Vietnam veterans will tear up as they tell it. It is related here as an enlightening tale of the human condition.
Sen. Cleland was famous in Congress for voting his conscience -- behavior that will get you in a lot of trouble in Washington.
Though a Democrat, he supported Republican President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001, and broke with fellow Democrat President Clinton over bombing of the former Yugoslavia two years before that. He was a sure Democratic vote for increased military spending.
But last fall -- a year after Sept. 11 -- when Cleland ran for re-election, his GOP opponent, conservative congressman Saxby Chambliss, put up homeland security television advertisements that began with photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, America's two biggest betes noires.
The unseen narrator solemnly intoned that Max Cleland "says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that's not the truth. Since July, Max Cleland voted against President Bush's vital homeland security efforts 11 times."
This is what American politics has come to.
It is deemed acceptable -- and advisable -- to attack for lack of patriotism a man who gave up in battle an arm and two legs for his country.
Cleland points out that Chambliss himself avoided service in Vietnam with a trick knee. In truth, Cleland was a co-author of a Democratic homeland security bill that was almost a carbon copy of the Republican version. On this, he had voted on party lines.
Did the astute voters of Georgia see through the slimeball ad?
Did they dimly perceive that a man like Max Cleland would never be a friend of Osama or Saddam?
Of course not. They were howling for incumbent blood because the Georgia governor, Roy Barnes, had yanked the Confederate battle emblem off the state flag. They took it out on Barnes -- and on Cleland.
Even Republicans were outraged. As Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain told Washington Post writer Peter Carlson for a well-written piece in that paper, "Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to a picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield -- it's worse than disgraceful, it's reprehensible."
Cleland took the defeat hard, and still expresses anger over it. He told Carlson in the same article that "I found out it doesn't matter what kind of job you do -- it's all about the goal of driving your opponent's negatives up. It's all about trashing the other side."
Chambliss, perhaps wisely, wouldn't comment to the Post about the infamous TV spot. It will be his legacy -- one of lasting notoriety.
Cleland is now lecturing at American University's excellent Washington Semester Program. His inexorable energy and implacable optimism are coming to the fore again. I will recommend as many of my promising students as practical apply for that program. They will never meet anyone like Max Cleland, and they will learn from him.
As for patriotism, I guess I conclude -- as that innocent sage Forrest Gump might -- that patriotic is as patriotic does.
That is, it all depends on how you apply your feelings of love for your country. If you appreciate its exquisite features, voice that appreciation in sincere and reasonable manner, try to correct its weaknesses, think out and voice your objections to government policy without violence, criticize the political rogues who twist reality for their own gain, and participate in bettering the good of the order when called upon, you'll be a patriot.
If you express it in trying to get elected to office by stepping on the cold, dead limbs of a true American patriot -- you are beneath contempt.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||July 8 2003|