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The Political Veteran

He Survived Vietnam and Won the Senate. Could Chuck Hagel Take the White House?

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2004; Page C01


Okay, now that the election is over, are you ready to talk about 2008? Chuck Hagel is.

The Republican senator from Nebraska has been thinking seriously about 2008 since he won reelection in 2002, and mulling a run for the White House even longer. He has a long history of doing, and getting, what he wants. He's ready -- well, ready to talk.

(Ted Kirk For The Washington Post)

People in politics want to "influence the course and direction of our country . . . and the world," Hagel told a gymnasium full of middle school students in Crete, Neb., last month. He was responding to 13-year-old Alex Rivas, who had asked if Hagel wanted to be president. "The president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. I think most of us in this business . . . do think occasionally about running for president."

His interest comes as no surprise to Hagel's friends -- for example, a former Nebraska congressman named John Y. McCollister, now 83. Hagel began his political career as an aide to McCollister.

"I warned Lilibet," McCollister says, speaking of Hagel's Mississippi-born wife. "I warned Lilibet before Chuck even ran for the Senate that she better get used to the fact that her husband was going to be running for president someday."

Hagel, 58, is not your standard-issue politician. He is outspoken, does his own reading, thinking and even writing, and has the capacity to charm Nebraskans, foreigners, even Democrats. Richard Fellman, a liberal Democrat and professor at Hagel's alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, calls Hagel "the best Republican senator this state has had since George Norris," Nebraska's one certifiable political giant, who supported both Roosevelts and the New Deal.

Hagel is Nebraska's most popular politician. He polled 83 percent of the vote running for reelection two years ago, winning by the largest margin ever in a Nebraska Senate race. During three days touring the state last month, Hagel was repeatedly stopped on the street by passersby who wanted to shake his hand. Outside Memorial Stadium in Lincoln on the day the University of Nebraska football team played Baylor, dozens of fans draped in Cornhusker red walked up to say hello, many to salute his independence in Washington.

But not everyone is constantly charmed. McCollister, Hagel's mentor, was unhappy when John Kerry quoted Hagel's criticism of the Bush administration in one of the presidential debates. Harold W. Andersen, retired publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, wrote that Hagel's blunt criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy ("We're in deep trouble in Iraq," for example) had angered Nebraska Republicans, who were "increasingly skeptical, if not sharply critical, of his attention-attracting performance on the national news-media stage."

Hagel personally wrote a combative retort: "With all due respect, Harold Andersen does not know what he is talking about." Asking tough questions about Iraq policy is his job. "I have a responsibility to do everything I can to assure our men and women who are serving in uniform and their families that America has a policy that is worthy of their sacrifices. . . . The deadly struggle for Iraq is not a video game that can be turned off until Nov. 2. War is not an abstraction. . . . I know. I've been to war."

In Harm's Way

He was referring to Vietnam, the formative experience in Hagel's life. By a freakish coincidence, Chuck and his kid brother, Tom, ended up in the same unit and the same armored personnel carrier, fighting in the 9th Infantry Division south of Saigon in 1968, the bloody year of the Tet Offensive. The two of them nearly died together -- twice.

The first time, their unit was on patrol and the man who was walking point, in the lead position, triggered a Vietcong booby trap, blowing himself to smithereens and leaving Chuck with a gaping wound in his chest that spewed blood until Tom could stanch the bleeding with bandages. Only then did Tom find shrapnel in his own left arm. The company captain had rotated the Hagel boys off the point only minutes before the booby trap exploded.

On another occasion, a Vietcong mine blew up under their APC, setting Chuck on fire. His burned face looked as if it was covered in bubbles, and both his eardrums were ruptured. Tom was knocked out cold. Chuck managed to drag his brother out of the APC, where they both came under machine gun fire. Alert comrades ahead of them heard the blast, and returned to save them. Tom was 19 at the time; Chuck, 21.

The two brothers reacted differently to their Vietnam experience. Tom concluded bitterly that he had participated in war crimes in Vietnam, killing people senselessly. He suffered from depression and drank too much. But he sought therapy through the Veterans Administration. He dedicated his life to helping people, and became a lawyer, a public defender, and now a law professor at the University of Dayton. He is a liberal Democrat who hoped fervently for a Kerry victory on Nov. 2.

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