When No News Is Strange News

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a giant in the field of logic. The 21st-century philosopher Chuck Hagel? Not so much.

The Republican senator from Nebraska, flirting with a 2008 presidential run, scheduled "an announcement on my political future" for yesterday morning in Omaha. Media types flew in from across the country. The state's governor and attorney general, along with 15 television cameras, crowded the room. Cable networks carried the event live while pundits went wild: Would Hagel jump into the race? Run for reelection? Become an independent? Quit politics entirely?

"I'm here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year," Hagel declared in front of a presidential-blue curtain.

That was the announcement? The cable networks quickly broke away. The reporters in Omaha were feeling had.

"Senator, at least one Republican political analyst called your announcement today bizarre just now," NBC's Michelle Kosinski pointed out in the question-and-answer session that followed. "Tell us why you felt this was important to announce right now."

Hagel cited the promise he had made to announce a decision after Jan. 1. "It is after the first of the year, before St. Patrick's Day, and that's the first responsibility I have," the philosopher reasoned.

Another questioner asked: "Can we expect another one of these conferences to be called? And any idea when that would be?"

"Before St. Patrick's Day of next year," Hagel offered.

The writers at the Hotline political Web site judged the announcement "the biggest letdown since 'Joey' spun off from 'Friends.' " The site had chronicled the speculation in the days before Hagel's announcement, including the Hill newspaper's "Sen. Hagel's retirement is a 'distinct possibility' " and the Washington Times's "Hagel expected to declare '08 bid."

Hagel caused much of the hype, teasing reporters last week and scheduling the event at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. Prospective rivals welcomed Hagel to the presidential race. "I'll look forward to being with him out on the campaign trail," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) told the New York Times. Speculation even crossed the Atlantic. Hagel "is expected to announce this morning that he is planning to seek the Republican nomination," Britain's Guardian reported.

Hagel's plan to delay a decision on a presidential run has its precedents. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he'll postpone a decision until late September (he has kept his name in the news by confessing to having had an adulterous affair during the Monica Lewinsky scandal). Actor and former senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) said on Sunday that he will "wait and see" about a candidacy (he seems more rooted in Hollywood than Washington lately, introducing himself to a passenger on a cross-country flight Saturday as "Fred Thompson from 'Law and Order' ").

Neither is it uncommon for a presidential candidate to have a news-free news conference. Just yesterday, Rudy Giuliani called reporters to the Mayflower Hotel to announce that he was being endorsed by a lone first-term senator, Louisiana's David Vitter. Reporters tried, unsuccessfully, to use the event to pin down Giuliani on his position on gun control ("I have no idea what I would veto") and the party's abortion policy ("Planks on a platform you leave up to the committee that puts together the platform").

But Hagel's event was unusual because he attached such hoopla to an announcement he had no intention of making. On Sunday, the Omaha World Herald's Washington bureau chief told National Public Radio: "I think he wouldn't prolong this over a number of days to say that he's not running."

Or so people thought. But this is a man who, after championing a Senate resolution opposing an escalation of the Iraq war, voted last month to block the measure from being debated. And moments after Hagel appeared yesterday, wearing a dark suit and tired eyes, he took an unpresidential turn. "I want to welcome Dana Bash from CNN and others who came to Omaha looking for a good steak," he quipped. He gave Bash the first question as a consolation prize.

This didn't seem to satisfy the CNN congressional correspondent. "This trip was all steak and no sizzle," she reported after the (non) announcement.

Another reporter at the event asked Hagel why he didn't simply form a presidential exploratory committee, an oft-used method of procrastination.

"Because I'm not there yet," he said.

And another asked if a last-minute conference call with supporters yesterday changed Hagel's mind. "No," he said. "I sat at my kitchen table in McLean, Virginia, two weeks ago and wrote it on a piece of yellow paper."

What, then, to make of it? "That was one of the most bizarre political statements I have ever heard," GOP operative Brad Blakeman said on MSNBC as the cable network broke away from the event.

The senator's hometown paper, the World Herald, got a potential explanation from the state's Republican governor, Dave Heineman. "Chuck Hagel," he said, "was being himself today." It didn't make much sense, but, under the Hagelian dialectic, it doesn't have to.

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