Joe Conason

Even worse than Ann Coulter's smearing of decorated war veteran Max Cleland last week are the fawning right-wingers now trumpeting her lies.

Topics: Ann Coulter, John F. Kerry, D-Mass.,

Ann Coulter just won’t stop assaulting the man with no legs and one arm — but now she claims it’s in self-defense. With characteristic panache, she insists that she is the real victim, because her slurs against former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland have provoked outraged protest. She’s particularly indignant that some critics (including me) have branded her a liar. And in response, she has compounded her original lies.

Like many other conservatives, Coulter has watched with increasing fury as Cleland and other Democrats discussed the president’s spotty service record in the National Guard. By last week, she had become so enraged that she wrote a column — posted on patriotic Web sites such as the Heritage Foundation’s and David Horowitz’s — composed largely of insults to Cleland’s integrity and record of service in Vietnam.

“Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam,” she demanded. Coulter went on to mock the grenade explosion that wounded Cleland so grievously as “an accident during a routine non-combat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends.” With leaden sarcasm, she noted that Cleland “could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman.” As she surely knows by now, he didn’t drop a grenade at all. He picked up a grenade that he thought had fallen off his web gear.

As he learned many years later, another, less experienced soldier had dropped that lethal object — and had mistakenly straightened the pin so that it detonated instantly when Cleland picked it up. There was nothing “stupid” about what he did; soldiers don’t leave explosives lying around for their comrades to step on.

While Coulter could hardly deny that “Cleland wore the uniform, he was in Vietnam, and he has shown courage by going on to lead a productive life,” as she so generously puts it, she still insisted that his service involved “no bravery” — and flatly states that he did not “give his limbs for his country” or leave them “on the battlefield.”

It’s true that Cleland lost his limbs in an accident and not as the result of enemy fire. But that isn’t the entire story, either. Without any information aside from Coulter’s column, a reader would believe that Cleland never saw combat at all. That same reader also wouldn’t know that he was decorated for the valor he displayed in one of the war’s bloodiest battles, only four days before the accident that grievously maimed and nearly killed him.

Evidently Coulter thinks that nobody needs to know those minor facts about the man in the wheelchair. Following the criticism of her initial column attacking Cleland, she has responded with another — and again omitted fundamental facts about his service.

She complains that his liberal defenders “are clearly implying — without stating — that Cleland lost his limbs in combat.” In the very next sentence she states that Cleland “was not in combat” and “was not in the battle of Khe Sanh, as many others have implied.” Had he not suffered the loss of his limbs, she smarmily reminds us, he would have ended up as a school teacher or a pharmacist, rather than a U.S. Senator and a Cabinet secretary. (What career does she believe George W. Bush would have pursued if he had been born into less privileged circumstances?)

She concludes by patronizing the remarkable Cleland for his post-injury “courage” and his “admirable life,” while admonishing him not to let others “sex up” his war record for political reasons.

While such sneering at a decorated war veteran is certainly grotesque, any expectations of decency from Coulter have diminished precipitously over the years. More dismaying are the echoes of her more “respectable” right-wing admirers. Mark Steyn not only endorsed her slurs against Cleland but added his own. According to him, the former Georgia senator was “no hero” but instead “a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars.” As a Canadian “humorist” and former disc jockey, Steyn obviously possesses the expertise needed to form such harsh judgments. He scolds Cleland for being “happy to be passed off as a hero wounded in battle because that makes him a more valuable mascot to the [John Kerry] campaign.”

Ugly, eh? It’s hard to understand why the Chicago Sun-Times would import such vicious nonsense about an American hero.

Neither of Cleland’s critics told the truth about him. Both misuse the modest remarks he has made in the past about his wartime experience to try to damage his reputation. He was indeed racked with self-doubt and depression after the accident that cost him his limbs. But that doesn’t change the truth about who he is and what he did before that terrible day. He earned the decorations that these two termites now disparage.

Cleland defended his honor on cable television, where he told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews: “I volunteered for a combat mission with the 1st Air Cavalry division going in to break the siege at Khe Sanh, and if that isn’t a combat mission, you ought to ask some of the people that were there and the 200 guys that were killed in that mission.”

According to U.S. Army General Order 4361, dated June 9, 1968, Cleland’s conduct during that siege was extraordinarily courageous. Let Coulter or Steyn find a witness who will contradict this Army citation, most recently quoted on the Senate floor last December by that new conservative idol, Sen. Zell Miller himself.

The full text, which cannot be reproduced widely enough, reads as follows:

“Awarded: Silver Star; Date Action: 4 April 1968; Theater: Republic of Vietnam

“Action: For gallantry in action while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Captain Cleland distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous action on 4 April 1968, while serving as communications officer of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry during an enemy attack near Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam.

“When the battalion command post came under a heavy enemy rocket and mortar attack, Capt. Cleland, disregarding his own safety, exposed himself to the rocket barrage as he left his covered position to administer first aid to his wounded comrades. He then assisted in moving the injured personnel to covered positions. Continuing to expose himself, Capt. Cleland organized his men into a work party to repair the battalion communications equipment which had been damaged by enemy fire. His gallant action is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

“Authority: By direction of the President, under the provisions of the Act of Congress, approved 9 July 1968.”

What Coulter and Steyn did to Cleland by obscuring the truth about his war record is truly despicable. Neither of them would be worthy to shine his shoes — if only he still needed them.

For your regular Joe, bookmark this link. To send an e-mail, click here.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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