The writer, a retired Omaha lawyer, teaches in the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He formerly was a state senator and a Douglas County Board chairman.
Strong signals coming from Washington have former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska receiving the president’s appointment as secretary of defense.
That’s good news.
I’ve known Chuck Hagel since the early 1970s, when he first went to work as a legislative assistant to Republican Rep. John Y. McCollister of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. His work was good enough that when McCollister left the House of Representatives and became a lobbyist for a major tire and rubber company, Hagel went along with him.
Through the intervening years until election to the Senate, Hagel’s career led him through positions with the Veterans Administration, a presidential inaugural committee, an early executive in the cell-phone industry and then at a major investment firm in Omaha. His rec- ord is one of continuous success — in government and in private enterprise.
Much has been made of Hagel’s war record, and that is appropriate. He was a noncommissioned officer, a sergeant. He entered the Army during the Vietnam War as a private. He was wounded and decorated.
But the important fact, at least to me, is that as a noncom he understands the military from the bottom up. As a former senator, as well as a successful businessman, Hagel would easily get along with generals and admirals. But it is as a former sergeant that he would see through the foibles of high rank.
Hagel would bring to the Defense Department the thinking of a man who has himself seen war. He also is a man who knows war and can be trusted to avoid war if at all possible.
Equally important, someone who has served in the lower ranks knows how to follow orders. He would have no problem, once a discussion has concluded, in following the orders given to him by the president, whom he has in the past endorsed.
If he were appointed, Nebraska would be proud, for the defense post in the Cabinet would place Hagel at the apex of power and influence.
If that happened, Hagel would join an honored list of fellow Nebraskans who have served with distinction in other presidential Cabinets: William Jennings Bryan, secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson; Herbert Brownell, attorney general, and Fred Seaton, secretary of the interior, under President Dwight Eisenhower; and, as secretaries of agriculture, J. Sterling Morton, under President Grover Cleveland; Clifford Hardin, under President Richard Nixon; Clayton Yeutter, under President George H.W. Bush; and Mike Johanns, under President George W. Bush.
But Hagel’s prospective appointment is not coming easily.
What is now taking place is strikingly similar to what just took place with Ambassador Susan Rice’s potential appointment as secretary of state. That is, a politically charged attack is being orchestrated by a small but strong group on the political right who don’t accept that they lost the presidential election. They are taking aim at the edges in petty charges that have been blown up so they constitute a major defect in the potential appointee’s ability to effectively serve.
With Rice, it centered exclusively on the fact that she followed a script given to her by Washington officials for Sunday talk shows when she attempted to explain what had taken place in Libya. She was maligned for doing what she was advised to do, and she withdrew her candidacy in an act of great consideration for the good and welfare of the nation.
Hagel is now under siege from the far right by a portion of the so-called “Israel lobby.” Interestingly, other major parts of that same “Israel lobby” are not only supporting Hagel but are now answering the attack with facts that favor Hagel. Most of Hagel’s words and actions were aimed at finding a way to negotiate some type of peaceful settlement involving Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah and their relationship with Israel.
As a former member of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Hagel has traveled the world and knows world leaders, their strengths and their weaknesses and the geography and politics of their nations. This is a tremendous asset.
News reports indicate Hagel has support from the majority of the Senate, with the possible exception of some right-wing members who forget that Hagel, when in the Senate and voting, had a nearly 90 percent favorable Republican voting record, departing from the GOP primarily when it came to war in the Middle East. Former and current Defense Department officials have praised Hagel.
Hagel has my vote.