Among veterans, there is an unwritten hierarchy of respect relating to military service.
At the lowest rung of the ladder are traitors, who are only slightly worse than draft-dodgers. Next are those who used legal loopholes to escape service; this level is just below those who signed up but used connections to avoid rough duty.
The next rung is those who never served at all. They didnt seek military service, but they didnt avoid it, either. Then there are draftees, just below those who enlisted. Wartime service is at the next higher level; combat duty is next. Those injured in combat rank higher. Prisoners of war, soldiers with disabling wounds or who commit acts of heroism are higher; greatest honor goes to those killed in action.
On this ladder of respect, Max Cleland would have had to die in Vietnam to get much higher. His lack of legs and right arm are visible signs of his service, as bright as a neon marquee glaring I almost paid the ultimate price for my country.
That persona has presented a tough challenge to Clelands opponents. First appointed as Jimmy Carters direction of veterans affairs, he later was elected as Georgias secretary of state, and then beat Republican Guy Millner for the U.S. Senate seat.
Until now, Clelands campaigns have featured his incredible life story as the hurdle over which opponents could not leap. But next year, when Cleland defends his Senate seat, he will for the first time have to defend a voting record that a majority of Georgia citizens are unlikely to recognize as reflecting their beliefs.
State Rep. Bob Irvin, a Republican who stopped by last week to say he intends to challenge Cleland next year, hopes Georgians realize that the conservative votes for which they applaud Sen. Zell Miller are often nullified by liberal Sen. Cleland.
Its striking that when you look at their votes week after week, they cancel each other out, Irvin says, declaring he will force Cleland to run against his voting record rather than his heroic life story.
Irvin believes Cleland has failed to live up to the legacy of Sam Nunn, the conservative Democrat he replaced. For example, Cleland voted against John Ashcroft for attorney general and against Ted Olsen for solicitor general. Cleland resisted cutting taxes, voted against the Boy Scouts being able to ban homosexual scoutmasters, against the self-employed deducting health insurance premiums, against relaxing burdensome ergonomics rules, and in favor of health insurance lawsuits against employers. And these are all just this year, Irvin says.
Irvin has an impressive record in the Georgia House, where he rose to minority leader. But in a nation whipped into patriotic fever, Irvins biggest stumbling block is the contrast of Clelands war record vs. his own lack of military service.
And as Irvin challenges Cleland, he has his own right flank to guard. U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, remapped out of Georgias 8th Congressional District, says he is more focused that ever on a possible run against Cleland. Like Irvin, while Cleland was in Vietnam, Chambliss was attending law school.
Voters will have a wartime choice between a liberal wounded veteran and a conservative non-soldier. If the fight is about who accurately reflects Georgias values, the conservatives win; but if voters cant see past the waving flags and wheelchair, Cleland wins again.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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