For The Record

Bipartisan tributes to Max Cleland’s upbeat spirit delivered at memorial service

By: - May 25, 2022 3:02 pm

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes called Cleland “a force of nature” who was ceaselessly upbeat despite his struggles. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (2014 file photo)

The late Max Cleland is being remembered as a national leader who channeled his own personal struggles into a life of public service, particularly to other military veterans.

The former U.S. senator and Veterans Affairs administrator died at the age of 79 in November and was buried with full military honors during a private ceremony at the Georgia National Veterans Cemetery in Canton. His pandemic-delayed memorial service was held Wednesday at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes speaks at Cleland’s memorial service held Wednesday. Screenshot of Northside Church livestream

The Georgia Democrat, who led the Veterans Affairs during the Carter administration, was a Vietnam War veteran who lost his legs and right arm in an accident involving a live grenade five decades ago.

“He was the person God used to show disabled folks they didn’t have to live as disabled folks,” said Pastor Gil Watson, who was Cleland’s close friend.

Cleland was also a former Secretary of State, state senator and an appointee to federal panels, most recently the American Battle Monuments Commission. 

“He was a man defined not by what had happened in his life, but he was defined by courage and maybe even more than that, by one principle: to make a better world. He lived that every day,” said Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense and U.S. senator from Nebraska. “Yes, he had his demons, but he dealt with them. He dealt with them in a positive, inspirational way that set a model for all of us.”

“In today’s world, in our political world that is so divided and so polarized, oh my, my, my, my, we need so many more Max Clelands,” said Hagel, a Republican. “Because he never let that division and polarization ever affect his personal relationships, his love of his country, his love of his friends.”

Former Democratic Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes called Cleland “a force of nature” who was ceaselessly upbeat despite his struggles.

“To just dress in the morning required extraordinary effort. Yet he did so day in and day out with a smile and a joke and the good humor that was always Max Cleland,” Barnes said. “He served in the highest offices of our state. His disabilities became his strengths. His struggles became our inspiration.

“He once told me kiddingly that he and I had been beaten more times than old rugs,” said Barnes, who was denied a second term in 2003 by former Gov. Sonny Perdue. “He was right, of course. But he never allowed defeat to deter him from being happy and upbeat and ready to serve.”

Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, read aloud letters written by President Joe Biden, former presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Carter, and former Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I know that my grandfather at 97 years old when he looks back at his life thinks about Max Cleland every day,” Jason Carter said. 

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.