Six years ago, Saxby Chambliss was able to win a seat in the United States Senate by deploying a series of highly personalized swipes at incumbent Democrat Max Cleland.
The attacks on Cleland's patriotism -- including running an ad that pictured the triple-amputee Vietnam veteran alongside Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden -- left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of observers, including Sen. John McCain, who called it "worse than disgraceful... reprehensible." Chambliss, after all, had never served in Vietnam. And the excuses he offered were so lame, he changed them on several occasions.
The most widely ridiculed yarn was that Chambliss' "bad knee" had kept him from serving.
"I was determined not to be physically fit," he explained during a debate in August 2002. "I had a bum knee. I had an old football knee that unfortunately they wouldn't take me."
It seemed all too unbelievable. And, generally, it was. Chambliss had sought and received five student deferments from service in Vietnam. That he would, nevertheless, criticize Cleland's patriotism was a sharp dose of political chutzpah --- but one that ultimately worked.
Flash forward six years later and the dynamics of that race are in some respects being replayed once more. Chambliss currently finds himself in a runoff election against another Vietnam vet, Jim Martin, after neither candidate could secure 50 percent of the vote. John McCain, meanwhile, is campaigning on Chambliss' behalf, despite the harsh rebuke he offered during the Georgian's first run for higher office.
Cleland, meanwhile, is not exactly willing to let bygones be bygones. In an interview with the Huffington Post late October, the former Senator insisted that this current election was not about him. But he painted Martin's candidacy as a true opportunity for Peach State voters to right a wrong.
"The people in Georgia are still P.O.ed at the fact that [Karl] Rove and Ralph Reed and Chambliss and Bush, all of them have been totally discredited," he said. "People see [that the stuff in 2002 was a lie] and there is some regret out there that I am not still in the United States Senate. And so now they are taking that out in their support of Jim Martin who is a Vietnam veteran, who had a case of polio but overcame that to make sure he got into the military and serve in Vietnam. On the other side, you have Chambliss who got out of going to Vietnam with a trick knee."
Indeed, for Chambliss' critics, the notorious knee remains a symbol of the quibbles they have with the Senator: that the appearance he provides is removed from reality and that he has, at times, been an absentee Senator. Physical impairments aside, in October 2005, Golf Digest ranked Chambliss the #2 golfer in the Senate and the 33rd ranked golfer in Washington D.C. Sources close to Chambliss, in fact, once grew concerned that his reputation was suffering because of all the times he was spending on the links.
These sources didn't lack a legitimate reason. In a scathing column titled "Saxby Chambliss' Day Off," then-Roll Call reporter Mary Ann Akers wrote about how Chambliss once skipped work to play golf with Tiger Woods, while his colleagues held a closed door session in which they agreed to accelerate in inquiry into how the Bush administration handled intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs.
"Instead of being forced to talk about the uncomfortable issue of pre-Iraq war intelligence (or the lack thereof), Chambliss was 'the envy of golfers everywhere,' as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it," wrote Akers. "At least until he stepped up to what the newspaper called the club's 'unenviable first tee.' 'That was one of the more intimidating shots I have ever had,' the paper quoted Chambliss saying. 'Thank goodness it worked out.'"
"And thank goodness Chambliss, who sits on the Senate Select Intelligence and Armed Services committees, didn't have to suffer through the Democrats' tortuous questions about those elusive weapons of mass destruction and whether the Bush administration manipulated the truth and misled Congress into supporting the war."