For Hagel, Standing Up Brought a Fall From Favor

By Eric Pianin
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward

Charlyne Berens

University of Nebraska Press, 230 pp. $25

Not long ago, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John McCain of Arizona were the Stardust Twins of the GOP, both decorated Vietnam War veterans and fearless conservative mavericks who occupied much the same political ground.

Hagel was at McCain's side when the Arizonan waged a bitter presidential primary battle against George W. Bush in 2000, and he introduced McCain to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. By then, of course, McCain's "Straight Talk Express" campaign had been derailed by Bush, while Hagel's popularity among party regulars surged to the point that he was mentioned as a possible running mate for Bush.

But six years later, that picture has been turned upside down: McCain has morphed from party outsider to Bush administration booster and a leading contender for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Hagel, meanwhile, has tumbled from grace within the party after repeatedly challenging the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill and leveling bruising critiques of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and domestic policy.

How could the onetime toast of the GOP have fallen so far, and what are the chances that Hagel will run for president in 2008 in the face of so many obstacles? In her new book, "Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward," University of Nebraska at Lincoln journalism professor Charlyne Berens attempts to answer those questions with a sympathetic portrait of a public figure who is immensely appealing and astute, yet the architect of his own political frustrations.

Berens begins her book noting that Hagel, a loyal Republican and internationalist in outlook, "time and again has taken shots at his party's and his president's engagement -- or lack of it -- with the rest of the world" and has scolded his conservative colleagues for their unilateralist tendencies. Hagel strongly values international alliances and global institutions such as the United Nations and NATO, a view that he has enunciated from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and that put him at odds with Bush's early go-it-alone approach to foreign policy.

Hagel commands respect for his thoughtful views on foreign policy, his one real passion in the Senate, and his candor has made him a favorite of the Washington press corps, as when he declared after Bush was nominated for a second term that the Republican Party "has come loose of its moorings."

Yet that same independent streak that marked his formative years and his remarkable climb to power has hurt his relations with many of his Republican colleagues and diminished his effectiveness as a lawmaker. While McCain has vigorously defended Bush's war policies and mended fences with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other right-wing foes, Hagel's complaints about the war and his opposition to the No Child Left Behind education plan and other signature Bush domestic initiatives have marginalized his prospects as a presidential candidate.

As Hagel's chief of staff, Lou Ann Linehan, often lamented: "I don't know why we have to run in front of every bullet."

"So now he's considering running for the presidency," Berens writes. "Just how will his outspokenness affect that aspiration?"

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