Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 1, 2006.
WASHINGTON -- Over a sofa in Chuck Hagel's Senate office hangs a painting of Winston Churchill, and nearby rest busts of Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower -- three giants of the international stage.
The British statesman, reformer president and war hero president share "the two most indispensable ingredients in life, especially in leadership," Hagel says: "courage and character."
Hagel aspires to join the ranks of those global giants. Already -- more quickly, perhaps, than any politician in Nebraska history -- he has elbowed his way onto the international stage.
After nine years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel is one of America's leading voices on U.S. foreign policy.
His views are strongly held, clearly stated and thus, at times, controversial. Yet they are sought out by U.S. policymakers and leaders across the globe.
For his knowledge of and efforts to influence international affairs, Hagel is The World-Herald's Midlander of the Year. Annually since 1965, the newspaper has honored a person or a group of people who made a major impact on the Midlands.
From the moment he arrived in the Senate in 1997, Hagel looked out to the world. He baffled colleagues by immediately seeking a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Foreign policy was viewed as a backwater then. It was like wasting a top draft pick in sports.
But Hagel saw it as a place to work on the big challenges of the 21st century. In the ensuing years, he has emphasized global ties -- "interconnectedness," in his word -- between the economy, environment, poverty, energy, trade, health, security and America's place in the world.
"I believed at the time, and believe as much today as I did then, that foreign policy was going to be the housing that framed all issues, that everything for the future of America would fall within that housing," he said in an interview last month.
Hagel, 59, is now the committee's second-ranking Republican. And he's an ironically blunt voice on one side of a divide within the Republican Party: the so-called realists.
The realists favor an American foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy, economic ties among countries and partnerships with allies and institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
The realists clash with the so-called neoconservatives, who are more closely tied to President Bush. Neocons emphasize America's role in exporting democracy abroad and are more willing to pursue policies even without support from allies.
The ideological clash is starkest over the Iraq war, where Hagel's criticisms stand out among Republicans. There, especially, his directness is a combat-hardened lesson from the Vietnam War.
Hagel's broader world view was shaped by Vietnam, too, and by other defining experiences: his work in the international business world and his upbringing in a patriotic and civicminded home.
He was raised in North Platte, Rushville, Ainsworth and Columbus. His father worked in lumberyards, and the family moved around. The oldest of four boys, Chuck grew up reading Life, Look, Time and Newsweek magazines.
Hagel's father, Charles, was a World War II veteran, which fanned Chuck's curiosity about the world.
A history teacher, Tom Sheridan at St. Bonaventure Catholic High School in Columbus, helped Chuck see links -- that "interconnectedness" -- between government, history, geography and America's relationships with the world.
In his junior year, Chuck had to grow up all at once. His dad died in 1962 of a heart attack, and Hagel, at age 16, became a father figure to his younger brothers, Tom, Mike and Jim.
Jim would die seven years later, at age 16, in a car accident.
Mike recalled Charlie, as he calls his oldest brother, pulling him aside during his high school football games to demand he play better.
Their mother, Betty, was Hagel's foremost role model. Strong-willed. Independent. When Chuck, Tom and Mike graduated from high school, their mother gave each of them the same gift: a Samsonite suitcase.
The message: Go out and make your way in the world.
As a young man, Hagel trained to be a radio and TV broadcaster. As a senator, his telegenic gravitas has helped make him a regular on the Sunday morning TV news shows.
In person, Hagel can charm Democrats as well as Republicans because he's likable, said friend Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and Nebraska governor, who is a Democrat.
Yet Hagel's face can cloud quickly, and his deep voice can thunder out sharp retorts. Last month, for instance, he compared Vice President Dick Cheney -- who has defended the war in Iraq and attacked its critics -- unfavorably to former President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, said Hagel, was not a "vitriolic person or one to impugn the motives of people who disagreed with" him.
Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush's first secretary of state, said Hagel is an unusual force on Capitol Hill. Powell said he listened to him closely because Hagel studied meticulously and consulted widely.
"Chuck is one of those political leaders who marches to a drummer of his own," said Powell, a fellow Vietnam War veteran. "He decides what he believes in, then he speaks out."
Brian Darling, a congressional scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed: "He's a strong-willed member of the Senate who's not afraid to speak his mind. He has a very different approach" from many senators.
Hagel's approach is a deliberate departure.
"This is a town that couches meaning and purpose in various forms of pseudo-flattery and a lack of sincerity," he said. "And I think that really drives too much of the base problem in this country today, where people do not have a great abundance of confidence and trust in government, our system of politics and the politicians because we don't say it straight.
"I say it as clearly as I can."
Over the past nine years, Hagel has argued for a foreign policy that promotes economic stability and consensus at home and abroad.
And he calls for America to be humble.
"Great powers remain great powers if they, too, recognize they have limitations to that power," he said.
American foreign policy, Hagel often says, should pursue "principled realism," a blend of lofty ideals and what can be achieved on the ground. Whereas some people see the world in black-and-white, Hagel sees complexity.
Kerrey, another Vietnam combat veteran, traced Hagel's views to the war in which 58,000 Americans died while the United States learned its limitations in Southeast Asia.
"If you see the world in black-and-white, that there isn't any gray," Kerrey said, "you haven't lived through a conflict like Vietnam."
Today, Hagel said, America should always advance freedom and democracy. But it shouldn't act unilaterally, shouldn't leave allies behind and shouldn't isolate other countries, such as Iran or Cuba. It should maintain close ties with allies that aren't democracies, such as Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
All nations act in their self-interest, he says, but they can be persuaded to work together.
Hagel learned all that during 2 1/2 decades of overseas travel, beginning in business, when he was a pioneer in the cellular telephone industry.
Particularly working in the Middle East, he realized that in any region of the world there are different traditions, standards and interpretations of words. That is one of the reasons he said it will be hard to set up and sustain a democracy in Iraq.
"I learned as much in the '80s from business situations . . . working with governments, private investors, government ministers, ambassadors," he said. "That's the first time I really ever started to understand protocol. It was the first time I ever started understanding real diplomacy."
In the late 1980s, as president and CEO of the United Service Organizations, he met many world leaders at USO centers in other countries.
Since being elected to the Senate in 1996, he has taken official congressional trips from the Middle East to the Gulf of Guinea, Eastern Europe to South America, Russia to Asia, South America to Africa.
Foreign policy, he said, "is a very imprecise, imperfect, complicated business, and the only way you can understand it is go out and see it and touch it and feel it and taste it."
Last month, he returned to the Middle East with two Democratic lawmakers. Over a week, they talked with foreign, defense and trade ministers, and heads of state in seven countries -- and with Palestinian officials, too.
Such trips -- and meeting foreign officials in his Capitol Hill office -- help him build relationships, which he said helps Nebraska.
For example, his familiarity with Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Ryozo Kato, led him to invite Kato to visit Nebraska last fall. It was during Japan's embargo on U.S. beef over concerns about mad cow disease. Hagel also spoke with other Japanese officials.
Did that lead to the end of the embargo in December? Maybe not directly, Hagel acknowledged.
"But it all helps soften the hard edges of interests," he said.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware has traveled overseas with Hagel as the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He said foreign leaders appear eager to speak with Hagel, the statesman from the Plains.
"He's known before he walks in the room," Biden said.
Richard Haass, a senior State Department official during President Bush's first term, said Hagel has earned respect abroad for his range of issues.
He has helped define a political center between "those who want to transform the world and those who want to hide from it."
Hagel "has been one of the few people talking about a foreign policy that others around the world find reassuring," said Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "His stand is not ideological. It's solid. It's grounded in a sense of limits as well as hope."
In Congress, Hagel has had successes. He teamed up in 1997 with Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to essentially kill the Kyoto global warming treaty, ratified by more than 150 nations, on grounds it would harm the U.S. economy.
He helped reopen trade with Vietnam, ease trade restrictions with Cuba and China, and develop aid programs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Last year, the energy bill approved by Congress included Hagel's proposals to curb global warming by promoting new technology and research. His tougher oversight for lending institutions also won approval.
Overall, his record is pro-business conservative. He is opposed to abortion and favors tax cuts. His rating from the American Conservative Union dropped from 100 percent to 87 percent in 2004, mainly because he backed gun safety locks and additional money to educate children with disabilities. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave him a 100 percent rating.
Hagel gets a presidential support rating of 94 percent from Congressional Quarterly. He has opposed three major Bush initiatives: the 2002 farm bill, the Medicare prescription drug benefit and the No Child Left Behind Act.
On the other hand, last year, he introduced bills to revamp Social Security and immigration laws that were similar to ideas proposed by Bush.
Hagel is most visible for criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.
In October 2002, as he voted to give Bush authority to go to war, Hagel warned that Americans shouldn't be "seduced" by expectations of Iraqis dancing in the streets after Saddam Hussein was gone.
In 2004, the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, needled Bush repeatedly with some of Hagel's comments.
Last June, Hagel accused the White House of being "disconnected from reality" on Iraq. He said America was "losing" the war and that too many parallels to Vietnam were emerging.
That month, Hagel flew to Grand Island, Neb., to make his case to American Legionnaires. Aboard his plane, Hagel insisted he was, in his own way, trying to help Bush.
"I don't want the president to lose," Hagel said. "I want him to win. But I can't just go along with the sheep here and say 'Everything is fine, just be patient.' We did that once."
That once was Vietnam.
As an Army grunt in 1968, Hagel learned about the consequences of war.
He and his brother Tom, then 21 and 19, respectively, volunteered for duty and arrived when Americans were dying in droves. Tom and Chuck were seriously wounded twice and saved each other's lives. They returned with honors and scars.
Tom came home bitter and still calls himself a "war criminal" for participating in what he calls an unjust war.
Chuck Hagel initially saw the war as an honorable endeavor. But he soured after reading about the conflict and listening to 1964 tape recordings of thenPresident Lyndon Johnson.
Years before the Hagel brothers went to war, Johnson and Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, anguished over escalating the numbers of U.S. troops. They said the war might still be unwinnable, but Johnson worried that Congress would "impeach a president that would run out."
Hagel blames Congress as much as the presidency for Vietnam. Many more Americans died than might have, Hagel said, because of Congress' silence.
As long as he is a senator, he has vowed not to let that happen again.
Biden said Hagel's critique last June led to the recent debate in Congress over how long U.S. soldiers should remain in Iraq.
But Richard Perle, a former Defense Department official close to the Bush White House, said Hagel's criticisms do not resonate.
"He doesn't look terribly constructive," Perle said. "He's popular on talk shows. But I don't think his views have had any impact."
Perle's comments betray a common criticism of Hagel, something he heatedly disputes. The criticism is that Hagel's bluntness is calculated to land him all those Sunday TV slots, and that in turn is a tactic to enhance a bid for the White House in 2008.
Hagel is in that predawn stage of a presidential candidacy. Last spring, he took a three-day swing through New Hampshire, the first primary state, and spoke last fall in Iowa, the first caucus state.
His political action committee, Sandhills PAC, is on track to raise about $500,000 for the 2006 election cycle, which will dole out goodwill contributions to Republican causes and candidates, but also help Hagel traverse the country and become better known.
After the 2006 elections, Hagel is expected to announce his intentions: the presidency or a third Senate term or something other than elective office.
Former Nebraska GOP Rep. John McCollister, who gave Hagel his first political job in the early 1970s, was an early mentor and remains a big fan. He disagrees with Hagel's downbeat assessments on Iraq and worries about repercussions if Hagel seeks the presidency.
"He has greatly impaired his chances," McCollister said. "There are a lot of Republicans who are mad as hell about what he seems to be saying."
American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene isn't so sure because conservatives are divided about the war and the administration's handling of the insurgency.
For now, Hagel's Republican detractors appear to be the more vocal. Some have even called him a traitor.
Hagel shrugs it off. Again, he goes back to Vietnam. His experience gives him a certain freedom.
"Getting beat up by Republicans . . . I don't like that," Hagel said, "but it's hardly life-threatening."