Driven From the Start
Hagel's father, Charles, went off to World War II, fought in the Pacific, came home to the Sand Hills in northwestern Nebraska and married his sweetheart, Betty. Chuck was born nine months later, in October 1946.
Chuck's brothers, Tom and the youngest, Mike, an artist living in Omaha, both describe him as the classic big brother, conscientious and disciplined, the apple of his father's eye, who from an early age succeeded at almost everything he tried. Dad was a charming schmoozer, but he was never successful. He moved from town to town in the Sand Hills, working for different lumberyards. "He always felt a little bit trapped. He didn't have the education. It was a very difficult deal. . . . Some people took advantage of him," Chuck Hagel recalls.
The father worshiped his firstborn but picked on Tom, and was never as close to Mike or a fourth brother, Jimmy, who died in 1969 in an auto accident. Both Tom and Mike indicated that there were problems at home.
Chuck Hagel elaborates: "I've tried to always -- not necessarily protect my dad in that, but try not to dwell on that, because I've seen too many politicians, especially, blame their fathers or the difficulties they had growing up. . . . Did we have a hard time? Yes. Did my dad have a drinking problem? Yes. [This is a favored mode of discourse for Hagel, asking questions, then answering, usually yes or no.] And it was probably far worse than certainly I've ever talked about."
The Hagels were always struggling. The boys began working at young ages, Chuck at 7, delivering newspapers. At 9 he was a carhop in a drive-in, using a small stool to get high enough to prop his tray on a customer's car window. As he got older the jobs got more responsible. In high school he was a football star and president of the student council. He worked weekends in gas stations and convenience stores. On Christmas morning in 1962, when Hagel was 16, his father died in bed. His mother and brothers turned to Chuck to fill the void.
"Chuck has always been a strong leader. You can go back to his high school years, he was that way," says Tom. "He is -- I don't want to say authoritarian, but he is very strong in his opinions, and if he's in charge, he's in charge."
"Charlie," as Mike calls his big brother, "has always been a conscientious person," eager to please others. He won a football scholarship to a small Nebraska college, but left because of an injury. He tried a second college, but dropped out. These were bad years for Hagel, drifting years.
Interested in broadcasting, he decided to go to a radio and television school in Minneapolis, where he earned a credential that launched him on the airwaves of Lincoln, the state capital. He sold ads and appeared on the air. But his draft board began to show an interest in him, so Hagel volunteered for the Army and quickly found himself in Vietnam.
Things went better after the war. While a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha he became a talk show host and something of a local personality. He asked a onetime guest on his show, Rep. McCollister, if he could work in his congressional office in Washington. Within two years he was McCollister's senior aide.
When McCollister left Congress, he became a Washington lobbyist for Firestone, taking Hagel along. Neither of them liked lobbying, but Hagel used the opportunity to keep making connections. He got the job of vice chairman of Ronald Reagan's inaugural committee after the 1980 election, then was appointed deputy administrator of the VA by Reagan. But he clashed at once with the director, Robert Nimmo, and quit after a year.
Then Hagel decided to pursue his growing ambition in the business world. He soon became a cell phone pioneer, helping found a firm called Vanguard Cellular Systems that struck it rich, making Hagel a multimillionaire. In 1987 the United Service Organization, threatened by bankruptcy, asked Hagel to become its chief executive. In three years he rescued the USO and put it on a healthy footing.
Hagel then went back to Omaha and into the investment banking business, waiting for a chance to run for office. When Sen. James Exon, a Democrat, announced his retirement in 1995, Hagel saw his chance.
In retrospect, both his brothers look at this chain of events as a quite predictable march of triumph for the big brother they both adore, even when they don't agree with all of his politics.
"Once he sets his mind to something, so far he has a hundred percent success rate," says Tom. And Tom Hagel is certain he knows what's next for Chuck: "I think he has his mind made up that he is going to run for president in 2008."