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The Washington PostA sympathetic portrait of a public figure who is immensely appealing and astute.—Washington Post
— Eric Pianin
Having survived a tour of duty in Vietnam and having made a fortune as a pioneer in the cellular phone industry, Chuck Hagel seemingly came out of nowhere to beat a popular sitting governor in a race for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Berens charts Hagel’s quick rise to national recognition and influence and examines the background that has led Hagel to an outspoken internationalism that often puts him at odds with his own party and president. This complex, plain-spoken Nebraskan may be on his way to the White House. Charlyne Berens explains why and how.
— Eric Pianin
— Peter J. Longo
All right reserved.
It's late august 2004, and the Republicans are celebrating
in New York City. It's a foregone conclusion that they will nominate
incumbent George W. Bush for a second term as president.
Not much to watch there.
But some other scenarios are playing themselves out among the
delegates and party enthusiasts. After all, it's only four years until the
Oval Office will be wide open, and it's not too early for potential Republican
candidates to start positioning themselves to be anointed
in 2008. The routine involves going to the right parties, meeting
the right people, getting interviews with the top media-not just
the hometown folks but those who can make a person's name a
household word around the nation's collective dinner table.
Chuck Hagel, Nebraska's senior senator, is playing the game.
Only a few weeks before the start of the festivities, he finally confirmed
that he was considering taking a shot at the 2008 presidential
nomination, something many observers had long expected
he'd do. Now he's laying some groundwork.
He's been invited to speak at a morning gathering of the Iowa
delegation and will drop in at an afternoon reception hosted by
the New Hampshiredelegation and make a few remarks there
too. The potential candidate and the party leaders from the two
states with the earliest caucus and primary election will size up
each other's moves.
Hagel takes the opportunity to compliment his hosts. "You
started the process, and you're going to have an awful lot to do
with how it ends," he tells the Iowa delegates in the morning.
"You shape and mold the outcomes from start to finish," he says
to the New Hampshire delegates in the afternoon.
The senator may be making the required moves, but he's not
always saying the expected things. Instead of gliding along, telling
his audiences what he thinks they want to hear, he tends to talk
about the things he thinks are important. Sometimes they do not
reflect Republican orthodoxy.
Several days before Bush will make his speech to accept the
nomination, for instance, Hagel is interviewed on the PBS News-Hour
with Jim Lehrer. The topic is the role the war in Iraq is playing
in the presidential campaign. Reporter Margaret Warner asks
whether Iraq is a "real negative" for the president.
Hagel does a delicate turn. "It's a major issue." There are other
issues, too, of course, but, "Yes, it's an issue."
Warner reminds Hagel that, back in June, he said the occupation
of Iraq had been poorly planned and had actually spread terror
cells throughout the world. Does he still think that's true?
Well, yes. "We didn't think about consequences. We didn't
think about the long term," he says.
And when the president addresses the convention and America's
voters, what should Mr. Bush say about the nation's involvement
Some careful footwork: "It is very complicated. And we are
going to need relationships. We are going to need associations,
seamless networks of cooperation with our allies.... And if he can
clearly define that, then I think the American public will continue
to give him the latitude that presidents must have in the implementation
of foreign policy." Some internationalist advice for a
president who seems determined to be a nationalist.
Earlier in the week Hagel surprised some observers by co-hosting
a reception at Bob Kerrey's home in Greenwich Village.
The two men became friends when they represented Nebraska
together in the Senate, and in 2004 Kerrey, the Democrat, is
president of the New School University in New York. The reception
is billed as a kickoff for a New School forum, a series of
roundtable discussions on urban issues that, Kerrey says, both
parties' policy makers need to confront. Crossing party lines in
the midst of a convention is not exactly commonplace, but Hagel
takes advantage of the opportunity to promote some of his
own policy views.
And he takes advantage of the convention's media spotlight as
well. He doesn't get to make a speech to the convention this time,
as he had done in 2000 when he nominated his friend John McCain.
But he gets plenty of attention off the floor itself.
Hagel is interviewed live on CNN's American Morning. The possibility
that he will be the party's chosen one in 2008 is discussed
in stories in major papers like the New York Times, the Los Angeles
Times, and the Boston Globe, as well as in wire-service stories that
run in papers around the nation.
Then, as the convention ends, Hagel becomes really blunt. "The
Republican Party has come loose of its moorings," he tells reporters.
He doesn't blame Bush for the mess, but he laments what
his party has done during the previous four years. For one thing,
the Congress, with Republican majorities in both houses, has run
up the largest deficits in the nation's history. For another, Republicans
have embraced a foreign policy that has put the United
States at odds with many of its longtime allies and fed Americans'
suspicion that multilateral institutions like the United Nations and
NATO are a nuisance at best and a threat at worst.
Once upon a time, he says, the Republicans made a name for
themselves as an internationalist party, reaching out to build
consensus all over the world. Now they're turning their back on
their reputation and their friends. It's a position he thinks is dead
Well. In the wake of his party's party, Hagel is not in the mood
to celebrate the GOP's condition or direction. Instead of joining
the post-celebration euphoria, he contributes to the morning-after
headaches. Is this any way to navigate the treacherous road to
the White House?
Maybe, but it's risky. Most people who want to win delegates'
support try to keep in step with those delegates, not challenge
them to change their ways. But Chuck Hagel is not afraid of challenge-or
risk. He may be jumping through mandatory hoops on
the way to a possible presidential nomination, but he's leaping
through some of them a bit sideways or even backward, pausing
occasionally to stick his finger in his party's eye.
For all the frustration Hagel expresses about the Republican
Party-and sometimes about politics in general-he is philosophically
in tune with many of the party's traditional positions. The
man who grew up in independent-minded Nebraska and made a
fortune in the cell-phone industry believes ardently in free trade,
in as little government intervention as possible, in fostering a climate
that lets people do for themselves, and in a government that
interferes in people's lives only when it has to. It is primarily on
matters of foreign relations that he parts company with his party.
But he loves his job in the Senate-just as he has loved all the
other jobs he's had: aide to a Nebraska congressman, lobbyist for
Firestone Tire, deputy director of the Veterans Administration,
cell-phone entrepreneur, head of the USO, investment banker.
Quite a list for a man born in 1946. Hagel has not done much
As one of his former employees said, "He's always pleased but
never satisfied." Cheerful and optimistic but driven and impatient.
Eager to learn and create but also eager for the next thing. Loyal
to friends and long-held values but ready to change things he believes
have gone wrong. Defender of Republican principles and
politicians but quick to speak out when he thinks they've gone
awry. A true conservative in philosophy but a moderate in attitude
and approach. As one observer put it, Hagel is that highly evolved
political animal: principled but open for business.
It's a philosophy grounded in both nature and nurture. Hagel
grew up in small towns in Nebraska, the son of a committed independent
Republican who communicated to his sons his interest
in the nation's business and the way he thought it should be
run. Hagel was sixteen when his father died of a brain aneurysm.
The oldest of four boys, he became the one on whom his mother
leaned and to whom his brothers looked for guidance.
Things were going well until he graduated from high school
and headed to college. After several tries in four-year institutions,
he finished a one-year degree from a broadcasting institution in
Minneapolis and got a radio job in Lincoln.
By that time the United States was up to its armpits in Vietnam,
and young men like Hagel who weren't in college were prime
targets for the draft. His draft board gave him fair warning, telling
him to get himself enrolled somewhere if he wanted to avoid
Uncle Sam's beckoning finger. But Hagel took another route: he
enlisted in the army before it could draft him.
Basic training went well, and Hagel was offered a special assignment
in a top-secret missile program. Rather than becoming fodder
for the Vietnam War machine, he was to be sent to Germany
for an elite assignment. Instead he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
It nearly killed him, several times. But, in other ways, it gave
him back his life. After a year of Vietnam's miserable heat, nearly
constant danger, and violent campaigns like the Tet Offensive,
Chuck Hagel came back to the United States ready to get on with
things-and with both a loyalty to the U.S. military and a belief
he should do all he could to prevent his nation's being involved
in another war.
The young man who had floundered his way through several
semesters at several colleges now earned a bachelor's degree in
history then made his way to Washington where he talked his way
into an almost-volunteer job with one of Nebraska's congressmen.
From there on, his intellectual and political smarts, his Nebraska
work ethic, and his charm took him steadily upward-with a few
blips on the trajectory.
President Reagan appointed Hagel deputy director of the Veterans
Administration, but he quit in less than a year, frustrated
by differences with a director he thought was indifferent or even
hostile to Vietnam vets. It looked like political suicide, but in retrospect
it seems perfectly in character.
Hagel was out of work and pretty much out of financial resources.
But he sold his car, cashed in his insurance policies, and
put everything he could scrape together into a "Dick Tracy" venture:
cellular phones. It sounded like science fiction in the early
1980s, but Hagel convinced investors to commit to his firm, Vanguard,
and the effort paid off enormously for the investors and for
the firm itself.
The Wild West atmosphere of cell-phone franchise awards
would later lead to questions about just how legal all Vanguard's
activities were, but no one was found guilty of breaking the law.
And the boy who grew up poor in Nebraska ended up a millionaire
after his company turned cellular science fiction into
So then what? Hagel could have spent his career maintaining
and building the company and quietly enlarging his personal fortune,
but when the next opportunity knocked, the restless Hagel
welcomed it with enthusiasm. He spent three years salvaging the
United Service Organization (USO) which had been facing bankruptcy.
It was risky. If he had failed, his reputation would have
slipped in Washington's power circles. But he took the chance and
After a few more years in Washington government-service jobs,
Hagel moved back to Omaha and took a position with an investment
bank. The job included revitalizing a small, struggling company
that made vote-counting machines. That connection came
back to haunt him.
Then he ran for the U.S. Senate, another risk. Outside Republican
circles in Douglas County, not many residents of the Cornhusker
State had heard of Hagel before he started campaigning for
the 1996 election. Had he lost, no one would have been surprised.
But by November enough Nebraskans were impressed with Hagel
that they passed over a popular sitting governor and sent the
political unknown to Washington to take his place in the nation's
So there he was, a freshman senator in a body where seniority
makes all the difference. We shouldn't have heard much from him
besides the usual press releases issued by his office for the state's
media. But the stars converged for Hagel, ensuring that his affinity
for and skill in international affairs coincided with a series
of circumstances that moved him rapidly into leadership on the
Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
Then, in 2001, the nation was attacked and went to war in Afghanistan
and, later, Iraq. Foreign affairs were suddenly relevant
again, and people like Hagel, who had both a background in and
policy influence on America's relations with the rest of the world,
were the darlings of the media.
Sure, a senator always runs at least a little risk in talking to a
reporter or getting in front of a TV camera to talk about his work
and his beliefs, but he can always give the pat answer, parrot
the party line, mouth the official doctrine. Unless he's Chuck
Hagel, the loyal Republican, has time and again taken shots at
his party's and his president's engagement-or lack of it-with the
rest of the world. Hagel the internationalist has been unafraid to
scold his colleagues for their unilateralist tendencies. The media
love this stuff, but a lot of Republicans don't.
So now he's considering a run for the presidency. Just how will
his outspokenness affect that aspiration?
On the one hand Hagel's independence may draw support from
people who have had enough of knee-jerk partisanship from both
sides of the aisle. His belief that the nations of the world are interconnected
and that the United States must not try to go it alone
may draw support from those of both parties who agree with that
On the other hand loyal Republicans-both those in power
and those who will vote in the primaries-don't always appreciate
Hagel's very public poking and prodding of their heroes and their
positions. Sure, he votes with them nearly all the time, but when
he disagrees he does it loudly and publicly and on some of the
Hagel says he knows it's a risk, but he says he's just being who
he is. If he were to shut up and be a good soldier, he wouldn't be
doing the job he was elected to do. And he says he learned a long
time ago that people can accomplish a lot if they're not afraid to
try-and to risk failure.
Despite the irritation he causes some of his supporters at home,
he could probably get reelected to the Senate indefinitely. Nebraskans
may be conservative, but they're also stubbornly independent,
and many of them like the way Hagel often bluntly speaks
his mind. They say his willingness to level with them makes them
feel that he respects them.
But much as he loves his work as a senator, Hagel says he's not
planning to make it his last career. He wants to see what else he
can accomplish before the years catch up with him and dampen
some of his stamina and energy.
Hagel's brother and some of his friends say the man does what
he makes up his mind to do. If he decides to give his heart to a run
for the nation's top spot, he'll win the job-just as he won election
to the Senate in 1996, coming from out of nowhere.
It was that election that first drew my interest. How could
someone who had been away from the state for most of his adult
life move back home, enter the campaign as a long shot, and actually
cross the finish line in first place?
It wasn't long after the election that Americans were first exposed
to Hagel's criticism of his party's positions. Many Nebraskans,
including some Democrats, seemed to like what they were
hearing from this Republican who sees the world as a web of interconnections
and isn't afraid to say it. Even those who disagreed
with many of his policy positions often respected Hagel's willingness
to take a stand on his principles and his willingness to consider
changing his mind when the evidence suggested he should.
He is, of course, a skillful politician. But Hagel also seems genuinely
interested in people and what they have to say. His friends
and colleagues say he treats everyone with respect, including the
waitresses and security guards and mailroom clerks, who would be
easy to ignore.
Excerpted from Chuck Hagel
by CHARLYNE BERENS
Copyright © 2006 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission.
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