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.
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.
Chuck refused to alter his view that Vietnam was a noble crusade. For years, the two brothers fought about this, forcing their mother to ban conversation about the war from all family gatherings. Today, Chuck Hagel acknowledges that his brother dealt with Vietnam trauma better than he did.
"I think I had suppressed too much of my feelings [and] what I saw. . . . I had a pretty ideological sense of the world, how the world should be, why we were in Vietnam, why I was there, why I thought it was right."
Hagel pretended that adjusting to civilian life was easy. "I just kind of took the American Legion path and just said, '. . . I'm going to get along with my life, there's no baggage that I brought back, I'm fine.' "
But this didn't work. After returning home, both he and Tom enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and for a year they were roommates. Then Chuck decided he needed time alone, and he rented a little house on the edge of the city for $50 a month.
"It was like two rooms and a bathroom. . . . I didn't go to parties, I didn't talk to anybody. I did two things: I went to school and I went to my job. I didn't have a date in a year."
In that year, without articulating what was going on, he found a way to deal with the war, and then he resumed a more normal and sociable life.
It took years longer for Hagel to conclude that Vietnam, despite its "noble" origins, had turned into a bad war fought for bad reasons. On an airplane flying from Omaha to Washington last month, he explains how this happened:
"I read everything I could about Indochina, about the war, about the French, about Vietnam, about our policy, what got us there. . . . And the more I read, the more I understood. . . . I got a sense that there was just so much dishonesty in it. And it was chewing these kids up. . . . So I started connecting all the deaths and all the suffering and the chaos and wounds. I started to sense a dishonesty about it all."
The last straw was the release several years ago of Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes. Some of those phone calls made Hagel cringe. He remembers especially a conversation between LBJ and Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who thought Johnson should get out of Vietnam: "It isn't important a bit," Russell said. Johnson said he didn't want a war, but he worried: "They'd impeach a president . . . that would run out, wouldn't they?"
Reading Johnson's words, Hagel says, he had to accept that the Vietnam War had been waged dishonestly for "an abstraction of policy" and to save face. "That's when it shifted."
In that angry retort to the Omaha World-Herald, Hagel wrote that "the tough questions were not asked when we sent young men and women into Vietnam. Where were our elected officials then? Eleven years and 58,000 deaths later, we lost. I don't want that to happen in Iraq."
Making an Entrance
Some people elected to the Senate disappear into the Washington woodwork, making no claim on public attention or their colleagues' respect. Chuck Hagel is not one of those.
If you were watching the tornado he was kicking up in Nebraska during 1996, you saw him -- in his first run for public office -- knock over the sitting state attorney general for the Republican nomination for the Senate. Then Hagel shellacked the popular incumbent governor, Ben Nelson, in the general election, beating him 56 percent to 42 percent. When he came to Washington he was the only newly elected Republican senator willing to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, a position he quickly turned into a pulpit.
His interest in foreign affairs, eagerness to travel and learn, and skills in front of a camera made him an instant star. Clinton administration officials saw an enthusiastic and intelligent counterpart. The television networks found him a cogent and attractive guest for the Sunday talk shows. The world was noticing Chuck Hagel.
If he takes the presidential plunge, the world will notice him a lot more, and will study his record, too. Though a staunch anti-abortion, pro-school-prayer, pro-school-voucher conservative who voted to remove Bill Clinton from the White House, Hagel is not easily pigeonholed.
He believes in alliances and international institutions. He says the neoconservatives in the Bush administration have taken the country into a serious mess in Iraq while damaging our historic alliances. He has repeatedly criticized the management of the war in Iraq (which he voted to authorize), particularly the administration's unsuccessful efforts to spend the money Congress appropriated for rebuilding projects. At a Senate hearing this fall he said of the flummoxed rebuilding effort: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous." John Kerry liked this quotation so much he used it in one of the debates with President Bush.
When Hagel was questioned in Nebraska last month about his loyalty to Bush, he invariably noted that he supported the president on "96 to 98 percent" of Senate votes. But the few votes he cast against Bush included the president's three biggest domestic initiatives: the 2002 farm bill, the No Child Left Behind education bill, and the reform of Medicare including creation of a drug benefit to begin in 2006. He calls the Medicare bill "a sham and a rip-off for nearly everybody . . . and actually, it's going to make our problems worse."
In other words, Hagel is no Bush acolyte. He is not a member of the most conservative factions of the GOP, and very firmly not an adherent of the "Bush doctrine" justifying unilateral and preemptive military action.
Hagel's biography won't satisfy some elements of today's Republican Party. He is not a born-again Christian, though he is a regular churchgoer, attending St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, a choice he and Lilibet (a former staff assistant on Capitol Hill) made to reconcile her Baptist faith and his Catholicism. He was divorced after a brief, childless first marriage to Patricia Lloyd, now a development officer at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Hagel is deeply partisan, but he has made friends across the aisle in the Senate -- Delaware's Joe Biden has become a pal, for one -- and says he believes in bipartisan government. He refused to join Republican colleagues in demonizing Kerry during the recent campaign: "I like him. He's smart, he's tough, he's capable. I don't agree with him on a lot of things [though] I am closer to him on foreign policy questions. . . . He's certainly qualified to be president."
And Hagel is far from politically correct in speaking about the Republican record of recent times. "Look at the deficits that have been run up. . . . And Republicans have been in charge. . . . We've been adrift in a sea of incompetence, with no fiscal responsibility," he told a group of small businessmen in Lincoln in October. The country is in trouble, he continued, because of "a lack of leadership, a lack of vision . . . and a lack of leveling with the American people."
Hagel promises that if he runs for president, he will level. "I happen to believe that by 2008, this country is going to be ready for some people to talk very clearly, plainly -- not frighten them, not demagogue them, but say it straight, say it honest," he says in the interview on the plane.
What about the Republican aversion to increasing government revenues -- could he run for president on a pledge never to raise taxes? We have to face the facts, Hagel replies. We'll need more money to solve the impending crisis of our major entitlement programs, particularly Social Security and Medicare. Pretending otherwise would be "dishonest."
"At some point somebody's going to ask you in a debate: 'Well, senator, will you pledge if you're elected president never to raise taxes?' I couldn't take that pledge. It would be irresponsible. That may cost me the nomination."
How realistic is it to expect today's Republican Party to respond to that sort of bluntness? Hagel answers philosophically: "I've been around politics . . . long enough to know that no one can accurately predict what the world will look like two years hence. . . . But I do know this: If one is serious about offering himself as a presidential candidate in four years, you are going to have to be suited up and down on the field and in the game."
As part of his preparations, Hagel will introduce two pieces of legislation in the Senate early next year that will advertise his readiness to deal with big issues. One will be his plan to create private Social Security accounts while preserving traditional benefits for those already on Social Security or about to be. The other will be a bill to control greenhouse gas emissions, an alternative to the Kyoto Treaty that the United States has refused to join. Hagel is flying to London next month to discuss his ideas on global warming with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The big question, Hagel says when asked in public about the presidency, is "what the Republican Party may be looking for in 2008." He says his party has "lost its moorings," and he wants to help redefine its mission. That would be part of his run for the presidency.
By implication, Hagel is talking about running the way John McCain did in 2000, as an outsider who may not start with the support of many GOP grandees, and whose main hope is to win so many votes in Republican primaries that he cannot be resisted. Of course McCain (whom Hagel strongly supported in 2000) may be a contender next time himself.
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."