Strong at the Broken Places

Strong at the Broken Places

The Power of Character
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes essays on a variety of topics from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
Purchase securely in the online store »



Strong at the Broken Places By Senator Max Cleland

Senator Max ClelandSenator Max Cleland is a Democrat from the state of Georgia. He went from being named outstanding senior in high school to Emory University to Vietnam, where he lost three limbs but not his purpose. Recipient of the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service and the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, Cleland returned to Georgia, where he was elected to the state senate at the age of 28 (that body’s youngest member) and wrote the law making public facilities accessible to the handicapped. Later he became the first Vietnam veteran, and the youngest person ever, to head the Veteran’s Administration, and then Georgia’s youngest-ever secretary of state. In 1996, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. “He is an authentic American hero,” columnist David Broder has written, “an inspiration to people everywhere; a living, breathing testament to the power of the human spirit.”


The historian Plutarch termed it a “longstanding habit.” Another ancient philosopher called it “perfectly educated will.” And Goethe said it means simply, “In great and little things, carrying through what you feel able to do.”

They’re talking about character, one of the great preoccupations of sages and educators – and all those concerned with the real quality of life. However it’s described, character is an essential building block in each youngster’s growth to become a responsible, moral adult. I believe it is critical to bring to the attention of our youth the importance of character-building and the teachings of morality and citizenship.

One develops character by overcoming obstacles and temptations. The temptations can be as mundane as choosing laziness over diligence. The obstacles can be profound – something I know quite a bit about myself. After I was wounded in Vietnam and lost three of my limbs, recovery proved a difficult time for me. How could I face coming back home after what had happened to me? In time, I would see the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”


I left my hometown of Lithonia, Georgia, a strong young man heading to a foreign land to fight for my country. Vietnam – another world, unlike anything I had ever seen before. I remember standing on the edge of the bomb crater that had been my home for five days and five nights, stretching my six-foot, two-inch frame and becoming caught up in excitement. The battle for Khe Sanh was over, and I had come out of it unhurt and alive! Five terrible days and nights were behind us. In spite of dire predictions, we had held Khe Sanh. I had scored a personal victory over myself and my fears. I had become a soldier and could really look the old sarge in the face. As Stephen Crane put it in his great book on war, The Red Badge of Courage, “I went to face the Great Death and found it was only the Great Death.” My tour of duty in Vietnam was almost over. In another month I’d be going home. I smiled, thinking of the good times waiting stateside.

On April 8, 1968, I volunteered for one last mission. The helicopter moved in low. The troops jumped out with M16 rifles in hand as we crouched low to the ground to avoid the helicopter blades. Then I saw the grenade. It was where the chopper had lifted off. It must be mine, I thought. Grenades had fallen off my web gear before. Shifting the M16 to my left hand and holding it behind me, I bent down to pick up the grenade.

A blinding explosion threw me backwards.


In the early days of my recovery, my emotions were on a roller coaster. Within the same minute I could be exhilarated and depressed. Laughter and tears often welled up in me during the same sentence. What a hand to be dealt at the age of 25! The only amputee I knew of was the town drunk back in Lithonia, whose life pretty much consisted of holding up the lamppost on the street corner. All I knew was I did not want to end up like that. I knew there must be bigger things out there for me, and eventually, I knew, I had to take the adversity I was facing and turn it into something positive. Life is how you find it – and what you make of it. One of the nation’s great first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, once said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

In search of purpose in my life, I turned to public service. I would express myself by helping others. Through it all, I would have as my constant support the inspirational thoughts and powerful examples of others. These have shaped my public service career – my life’s work – just as surely as they have shaped my self-regard and regard for the world – my character. I like to think I successfully turned my “scars into stars,” as my friend Robert Schuller says.

I believe Ernest Hemingway best describes my philosophy then and now: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” I was fortunate enough to be able to take my physical and emotional scars and turn them into purpose in my life, my stars. Today, my public service is my purpose and my strength. And now I feel I am strong at the broken places.

I am approached every day by people who identify with me because of adversity they have faced in their own lives. Perhaps they or a child served in Vietnam, perhaps they have lost a family member or close friend, perhaps they have gone through a divorce or are struggling to make ends meet financially. Perhaps, like me, they are wheelchair-bound and up against life’s many staircases and six-inch curbs. They feel pain. I understand that.

What can I tell them? Henry Ford said, “Believe in your best, think your best, study your best, have a goal for your best, never be satisfied with less than your best, try your best – and in the long run, things will work out for the best.” That works for me.

Sources of inspiration

When I first decided that public service was my calling, I spoke with my good friend and political mentor, Jim Mackay. I was involved in his campaign for Congress in 1964 and had followed him to Washington as his intern. He was a great help to my parents after they learned of my injuries in Vietnam. He too had suffered a loss as a result of this war: his daughter’s fiancé was killed in the Tet Offensive in 1968. I have the greatest admiration for Jim. He was an incredible role model and inspiration for me, and he has helped me and my family through some very rough patches.

Jim knew about winning and losing, and I knew he would give me insight on running for the Georgia state senate in 1970. I wanted to run a campaign that would ultimately end with a great victory but, more important, one that would make him proud. So I sought his advice when I decided to run. “I’ve got to tell you this,” he said when I sought his advice, “Running for public office is like combat – you can get shot.” (Winston Churchill was of the same mind, once remarking that “in war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.” How true!)

“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal; the tragedy lies in having no goal to reach,” said Benjamin Mays, the great educator. Through his leadership example, advice, and guidance – and sometimes a friendly word of caution – Jim has influenced me greatly. By his wise and compassionate counsel as well as his example, he is someone who shaped my definition of good character.

Another person I have a tremendous admiration for is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not just the president but the whole man. Our dedication to public service binds the two of us, but my tie to this great man goes much deeper. FDR spent time in Warm Springs, Georgia, rehabilitating his legs and was so impressed with the facility that he built and established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. We both began our political careers as state senators (Oh yes, I did win that race in 1970). And on a lighter note, the hand controls on my car were installed by the same Warm Springs brake shop that installed hand controls on Roosevelt’s 1940 convertible (a gift from Henry Ford). Every time I visit Warm Springs, I sense the presence of Roosevelt – the character, the personality, the man.

The polio had weakened his legs but not his spirit. Roosevelt refused to think of himself as disabled. He vowed to find a way to build up his strength and carry on. He has inspired many, including myself, to continue with that spirit today in our mission to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve personal independence. Most importantly, he continues to inspire our dreams. Some of the landmark domestic programs that helped lead this country out of the Great Depression came from ideas developed in Warm Springs, including the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electric power at affordable rates into rural homes across the country.

FDR also developed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which created employment and job training for a Depression-weary generation of young men, including my father. The CCC was instrumental in protecting and improving public lands. One of the most important fundraising campaigns in America, the March of Dimes, evolved from President Roosevelt’s Birthday Balls, events established to raise funds for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, polio research, and aid for polio patients. His death in 1945 left the nation in mourning, especially in Georgia, where the people embraced him as one of their own.

To me, the wheelchair now depicted at the new FDR memorial in Washington, D.C., is a testament to FDR’s ability to transcend disability and infirmity to become the leader of the free world. That is why I fought for a statue of FDR actually seated in his wheelchair. It adds a human dimension – beyond the world statesman, beyond the politician, beyond the Democratic Party leader, beyond the great speechmaker. It adds a personal dimension of triumph over adversity and disability. Far from a sign of weakness, it tells people precisely what helped make FDR a great example of character.

Aldous Huxley once said that “experience is not what happens to a man; it’s what a man does with what happens to him.” What happens to us in our lives and how we face each challenge is what builds our character. And the way we learn how to face our challenges and to turn our scars into stars is by learning from example.

Being a member of the U.S. Senate has truly been a dream come true for me. If it were not for my parents, friends, role models, and heroes, I would not be where I am today. I would not have had the motivation to pick up the pieces after Vietnam, dodge the bullets fired in a political race, and go for my dream. And I would not be able to face the challenges I face now in the U.S. Senate. General George S. Patton was right! “Success is how high you bounce after you hit bottom.”

Character: now more than ever

A Times Mirror poll last year showed that American voters place a far greater importance on electing political leaders with strong character – ethical standards, compassion for the average citizen, and good judgment – than they did 20 years ago. I feel that this yearning Americans have for leaders with strong character is the result of a general loss of faith, not only faith in our political system but faith in American society as a whole.

How many times have we heard that our children are “the future of our country”? How seriously do we take that? We must ensure that the youngsters of this country and all other countries start out on the right foot and that these children have the right values and beliefs instilled in them from the beginning. We must strengthen our schools and communities, fostering a stronger environment for learning for our nation’s youth. We must teach our children to set high goals for their lives, to raise the bar even higher than before. And importantly, we must allow our children to dream.

During my first year in the U.S. Senate, I was an original cosponsor of the bill designating a National CHARACTER COUNTS! Week. The bill states: “Young people will be the stewards of our communities, nation, and world in critical times, and the present and future well-being of our society requires an involved, caring citizenry with good character…. Although character development is, first and foremost, an obligation of families, the efforts of faith communities, schools, and youth, civic, and human-service organizations also play a very important role in supporting family efforts by fostering and promoting good character.”

After defining the core elements of character as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship – elements that transcend cultural, religious, and socioeconomic differences – the bill continues: “The character and conduct of our youth reflect the character and conduct of society; therefore, every adult has the responsibility to teach and model the core ethical values and every social institution has the responsibility to promote the development of good character.” I believe this with every fiber of my being.

George Matthew Adams once said, “There is no such thing as a ‘self-made’ man. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts as well as our success.” This truth is why we must all work hard to instill character, values, and morality in our youngsters. In doing so, we can successfully restore faith in individuals and ultimately in our country. And we can build up ourselves.

— top of page —