• What they're saying about Chuck Hagel's nomination
• Read more about Hagel.
• Photo showcase: Chuck Hagel through the years.
• Photo showcase: Hagel nomination press conference.
• Video: President Obama's national security picks.
• Video: Monday's press conference announcing Hagel's nomination.
* * * * *
It's hard to understand all the haggling over Hagel.
Who could be more qualified to serve as the nation's secretary of defense than this son of Nebraska? Chuck Hagel has amassed an impressive life résumé even as he has honed a lifetime of skills.
As a lad, he walked our state's stunning Sand Hills; as a young soldier, the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia. He spilled his own blood there at 21 and saw comrades dying. He is no pacifist, but he knows war.
I first sat down with him in May 1992, a couple of months before he moved back from the nation's capital to Nebraska at age 45 to head an investment banking firm and, eventually, to run for office. In 1996, in the quiet after the tumult of his come-from-far-behind first election to the U.S. Senate, I caught him for a private reflection.
“Combat and the horror of war, if they don't destroy you, do strengthen you and mold you,” he said then. “I've been in bad places and seen bad things. It made me feel there isn't anything I can't do.”
No one today is questioning Hagel's confidence, but some question his commitment to our ally Israel. Surely his suitability for one of the nation's top jobs must be vetted, scrutinized and debated, but some have smeared him with allegations that he is anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.
Flabbergasted by both of those is Israeli-born Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel in Omaha, who has known Hagel since before he ran for office. The rabbi wrote a letter to The World-Herald's Public Pulse three weeks ago defending Hagel — no one asked him to write it — and since then has given interviews to CNN and other news outlets.
“There is an attempt to distort this man's character and record,” Azriel said when I called Wednesday. “At no time in any of our conversations on different topics have I ever sensed any anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiments.”
Before Hagel ran for the Senate in 1996, he called the rabbi and other clergymen to introduce himself, which impressed Azriel. The two of them spent three hours in the rabbi's study, speaking mostly of Israel and the Middle East. Over the years, Hagel has talked and answered questions three or four times at Temple Israel and had many chats with the rabbi.
“He speaks his mind,” Azriel said. “He has a bit of the Israeli chutzpah that I was raised with. I don't think he owes anything to anyone.”
The job of defense secretary, of course, entails more than U.S. relations with Israel. Some have criticized Hagel for saying we should engage in direct communication with, for example, Iran and North Korea.
“The world is full of nuances, not black and white,” Hagel told me in a 2006 interview. “It's made up of an awful lot of gray.”
He won two Senate elections for the GOP in Nebraska. But despite the American Conservative Union grading him with an 85 percent conservative voting record, some Nebraska Republicans soured on Hagel. That's because of his criticism of the Bush-Cheney administration's conduct of the Iraq War — for what Hagel called a lack of preparation, planning and “thinking through consequences.”
Folks who admired the senator for speaking independently of his party and the president could have nominated him for a chapter in a new “Profiles in Courage.” His critiques, after all, were not politically expedient. From his own party, he took unfriendly fire.
As a Vietnam War veteran and a senator, Hagel cited a striking influence for helping to shape his view — the release of a taped conversation from 1964 between President Lyndon B. Johnson and longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. On the tape, Russell tells LBJ that Vietnam was “the damn worst mess I ever saw.”
Russell then disagreed when Johnson said the American people would impeach a president who would “run out” of Vietnam. But the U.S. stayed, and more than 58,000 names of Americans who died there were engraved years later into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
LBJ didn't agree with a senator from his own party, and President George W. Bush didn't agree with the critique from a senator of his party.
Nebraska is such a reliably Republican state that outsiders may be surprised at its past independent streak. From 1976 through 2006, voters elected Democrats in nine out of 11 U.S. Senate races — Ed Zorinsky, Jim Exon, Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson. The two exceptions were the elections of Chuck Hagel.
A Dallas newspaper once called Hagel “the Senate's leading internationalist.” But that hasn't been his sole concern.
The Associated Press revealed in 2008 that Freddie Mac had secretly paid a consulting firm $2 million to help kill Hagel's 2005 legislation that would have regulated the mortgage giant and its sister company, Fannie Mae.
In an August 2009 press conference, Hagel warned of the nation's deteriorating infrastructure. In a horribly tragic coincidence, the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed that afternoon, killing 13.
Americans say they hate the nation's polarization and divisiveness. Well, so does Hagel. As he told me last March, the atmosphere in America is “the most debasing, degrading political climate I've ever seen.”
Since not seeking a third term and leaving the Senate four years ago, Hagel has stayed plenty busy. Among other things, he has taught foreign policy at Georgetown University and served as co-chairman of the nonpartisan President's Intelligence Advisory Board, spending some time at the Obama White House.
Hagel has received a University of Maryland award for “courage and leadership in American politics,” and another for “diplomatic excellence.”
A graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Hagel once worked as a bartender at the venerable Dundee Dell. He's had tougher jobs since, and likes to quip that, “If you want a safe job, go sell shoes.”
The old foot soldier stands on his own two feet, and no doubt is eager to lace up his boots and get to work. But first will come contentious nomination hearings in the Senate.
Charles Timothy Hagel, 66, a Nebraska baby boomer who was born in North Platte and graduated from high school in Columbus, has been nominated by the president for a top post.
Having been in bad places and seen bad things, Chuck wants the chance to serve his country again — and do lots of good things.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, firstname.lastname@example.org
More on Hagel
• Chuck Hagel's record suggests his approach to military, budget
• If nominated, Chuck Hagel could face bruising confirmation fight for defense post
• Full plate awaits next Secretary of Defense
• Leon Panetta calls Chuck Hagel 'smart, capable'
• Chuck Hagel draws fire for his position on Israel
• Gay-rights group critical of Chuck Hagel's remarks
• Midlands Voices: Hagel would be deserving of defense post
• Chuck Hagel named 2005 Midlander of the Year
• Sept. 8, 2007: Hagel to announce Senate retirement and no bid for presidency, sources say