When it first hit me that Barack Obama would be his party’s choice for president, I predicted that great things were in store for a man who would seem to have little in common with the Democrats’ new standard-bearer.
That man, Chuck Hagel, got my hopes up a few months later, when he candidly said he would consider an offer to be Obama’s running mate.
We all know that things took a different turn when Obama chose The Biden as his veep. But I remained confident that Hagel would be on the president’s shortlist for secretary of state or secretary of defense, based on their close working relationship in the U.S. Senate.
As the months wore on, though, Hagel faded into the background, leading me to wonder why his talents weren’t being put to better use.
And then, even before his name officially surfaced as President Obama’s pick for defense secretary, I began to hear the whisperings that Hagel was a contender for the job.
However, those whisperings contradicted everything I know about Chuck Hagel, his remarkable life and his distinguished service to this country.
Critics accused him of being a raging anti-Semite, a homophobe and — horror of horrors — a moderate.
Ironically, their right-wing allies in the Senate signaled that they will happily confirm a wishy-washy Massachusetts liberal as the country’s next secretary of state; some of them also rallied behind Democrat Michele Fluornoy as their choice for defense secretary.
Yet here they are, impugning the values of someone they previously embraced as one of their own, showing him the same degree of contempt that they’ve shown the president over the last four years.
In contrast to the positions that his Democratic friend and former Senate colleague have taken, Hagel’s credentials on many domestic issues are unassailably conservative.
But when it comes to the issues of foreign policy and military affairs, Hagel is widely viewed as a pragmatist, an independent thinker and — gasp — a moderate.
As a two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel was one of the lone voices in Washington, D.C. — of either party, I might add — who favored a nuanced approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.
His concern about the plight of the Palestinian people has earned him the enmity of those who seem to believe that not everyone is entitled to the same basic human rights that other people enjoy.
He’s also taking flack for his early opposition to the war in Iraq, as well as his subsequent stand against the surge of troops there.
Hagel voted for the original Senate resolution to authorize the costly, misguided and deadly distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But Hagel came to regret that decision.
When Dick Cheney declared prematurely that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes,” Hagel offered a very public rebuke of the Grim Veeper’s rosy assessment.
Almost immediately, he developed a name for himself as one of the war’s most articulate critics in the Senate.
I believe that his instinctive skepticism would serve us well going forward, since the same people who steered us into that folly are salivating at the thought of drawing us into an entanglement with Iran.
Unlike many of those neoconservative chickenhawks, the highly decorated Vietnam War veteran understands that war should be avoided at all costs.
Hagel’s worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his military service, just as his character developed during a very humble upbringing in the Midwest.
Throughout his childhood, the Hagel family drifted from place to place.
One summer, for instance, the homeless family members spent their nights inside a chicken dormer. At another point, the family slept in a motel’s furnace room.
Under tragic circumstances, Hagel learned the value of responsibility at a young age. When his father died, the 16-year-old helped his mother raise his three younger brothers.
One of those brothers later joined Hagel’s squad in Vietnam, and they went on to save each others’ lives during their time with the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division.
At first, the two brothers held radically different views of the conflict, but eventually, Chuck Hagel came to the conclusion that his brother was right: the war was a mistake.
He never did throw away his dog tags and join a hippie commune, though.
Enough time has passed that many people have forgotten that Hagel served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration during the early Reagan years.
Even then, he wasn’t afraid to take the kind of stand that sets him apart from so many others he would later join in the Senate.
When his boss moved to cut veterans’ benefits, and compared the effects of Agent Orange to a “little teenage acne,” Hagel fought back.
He lost, but he quickly bounced back from the experience when he bet his net worth of $5,000 on a company that was developing a largely unknown technology.
His friends reportedly scoffed when he described the newfangled gadgets called cell phones. But they weren’t laughing when that company, Vanguard Cellular Systems, went on to become the second largest business of its kind on the planet.
Hagel eventually shifted from cell phones to investment banking, and in 1996, Nebraska’s electorate sent him to the U.S. Senate with 83 percent of the vote.
Over the next 12 years, the senator developed a reputation as a foreign policy realist — the kind of person who would have fit right in alongside Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft in George Herbert Walker Bush’s administration.
He unequivocally shares President Obama’s belief that America should work with its allies and strengthen its ties around the world, while rejecting the kind of military adventurism that the elder Bush’s son embraced.
In the four years since he left the Senate, Hagel furthered the causes of freedom and democracy through his service with countless charities and think tanks. He’s continued to advocate on behalf of everything from veterans’ rights to peace in the Middle East, and as a member of PBS’ board of directors, he’s been a friend to Big Bird in his hour of need.
Chuck Hagel has lived the American Dream, and his life story is a sterling example of what others can accomplish.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mitch McConnell, who had these words to say about Hagel in 2008:
“In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security.”
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t second the tribute that John McCain paid to Hagel before he entered his “get off my lawn” phase:
“I’d be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity … He’d make a great secretary of state.”
It will be a great day for our country and our military when Chuck Hagel is sworn in as our next secretary of defense.