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Look Back in Anger

The unmooring of Chuck Hagel.

What distinguishes the politician from the political agitator is a lively concern for his own job security. Politicians sometimes say what they believe, but they don't usually say things that might jeopardize their political future. Until recently, Chuck Hagel was a consummate politician, and a successful one at that. He defeated a popular sitting governor in his first Senate race in 1996 and won reelection, in 2002, with 83 percent of the vote. While he occasionally strayed from the GOP fold on foreign policy--an ardent internationalist, he had criticized both the Iraq war and neoconservatism generally--his credentials as a loyal Republican were never in doubt. He has long been a predictable vote on issues of importance to the American Conservative Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Christian right. And he remains so. It's not well-known, but Kyoto foe Hagel is still skeptical that humans are triggering global warming. "We always had climate change," he told me during a recent interview. "The issue is what is causing this. We still do not know."

By 2004, Hagel was preparing to run for president in 2008. He assembled a kitchen cabinet of advisers and a wider group of friends who were committed to fund-raising for him. His PAC gave money to the Iowa Republican Party. He planned to run on his conservative credentials--he boasted that, in 2006, he had voted with the White House more frequently than any other senator--while remaining critical of the Iraq war. Hagel isn't a household name, and, in a field dominated by John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, the Nebraska senator certainly faced an uphill struggle. Still, there was reason to believe that Republican voters would at least give him a hearing.

Then, quite suddenly this year, Hagel began saying and doing things that no rational Republican who was running for president would say or do. In an Esquire article and later in a nationally televised interview with George Stephanopoulos, Hagel raised the specter of impeaching George W. Bush. The president is "not accountable anymore," Hagel told Esquire, adding, "You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment." In March, he went a step further. Despite his misgivings about the war, Hagel had voted with the White House at key junctures, including the October 2002 resolution authorizing force and the committee vote to confirm John Bolton as U. N. ambassador. But, on March 27, he provided the swing vote to pass a Democratic measure on Iraq. The resolution, virtually the same as one that Hagel had opposed only twelve days before, set a March 2008 goal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. On the Senate floor, Hagel ripped the administration for "escalating our military involvement in Iraq."

Republican voters might have put up with, even applauded, Hagel's criticism of how Bush was conducting the war; but they are unlikely to accept his decision to join Democrats on a crucial partisan vote and even less likely to accept his speculation about impeaching Bush. Indeed, in the wake of the Senate vote, Hagel's longtime patron and mentor, former Nebraska Representative John McCollister, implicitly rebuked Hagel in a letter to the Omaha World-Herald, writing, "I believe that some people disregard the awful consequences of a premature withdrawal and want to end the war, period. Others have a consuming, burning hatred of George W. Bush as their dominant legislative priority. Those who carelessly throw out talk of 'impeachment' are of the same stripe." Meanwhile, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning announced that he was considering challenging Hagel in the Republican primary if he seeks reelection to the Senate. "Senator Hagel has lost touch as a Republican," says Bruning, "and he has not behaved as one."

Having become an outcast in his own party, Hagel is now hinting that he may leave the GOP altogether and run for president as an independent--never mind the astronomically long odds that would accompany such a bid. "I think a credible third ticket, third party, would be good for the system," Hagel declared recently on "Face the Nation." Asked whether he might run on an independent presidential ticket with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the usually poker-faced Hagel broke into a wide grin. "It's a great country to think about a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation," he said. One member of Hagel's kitchen cabinet says, "It is never going to happen." But the fact that Hagel even raised the possibility shows how far he has traveled politically.

In short, Hagel--having spent his career building a reputation for steady, loyal conservatism--has stopped acting like a politician and begun acting like an agitator or crusader, a man with a cause that overrides any political calculation; and, in doing so, he has probably ruined whatever shot he once had at becoming president. Why did he do it? Tightly wound and stocky, with steely blue-gray eyes, Hagel is known for what a former staffer calls his "huge temper. " And there is no doubt that, today, Chuck Hagel is acting out of anger. Anger about Iraq, yes, but also anger fueled by things that happened many decades ago. Anger that he had suppressed for a long time.

According to his two younger brothers, Chuck Hagel takes after his grandfather, who managed a lumber mill in Ainsworth, Nebraska. Their grandfather, recalls Chuck's brother Tom, "was your stereotypical dominant Teutonic male--very, very German, very dominating, very hard-driving. He set the rules: his way or no way. And my father was kind of like that. But Chuck was more like that."

Their father at one point worked for the same mill, but he was an alcoholic and had difficulty holding a job. When Chuck was growing up, his family moved from one small town to another as his father got jobs working for lumber mills. His father's fondest memories were of his service in the Pacific in World War II. "We were a family that grew up with the Legionnaires' Cap and a sense of responsibility to the country," Hagel recalls. Much of his father's hope for the future rested on Chuck, who was a star football player in high school. But he died in 1962, when his eldest son was 16, and Chuck's football career ended when he injured his neck in December of his freshman year of college. With his athletic career over, Hagel floundered in school. In 1967, on the verge of being drafted, he enlisted in the Army.

Hagel was eager to go to war. Trained as a rifleman, he volunteered to go directly to Vietnam rather than spend six months in West Germany. In Vietnam, he was joined after three months by Tom, who, to his amazement, was sent to the same unit. They fought together in the jungle and Saigon during the Tet offensive. At different moments, each had to save the other's life. The last time came in the spring of 1968, when a mine went off under their armored personnel carrier outside Saigon. As Chuck later told a newspaper reporter, when he grabbed Tom, who had been knocked unconscious, he was "dead weight, blood pouring out of his ears." Before he could pull Tom out, the ammunition in the carrier blew up, severely burning Chuck and blowing out both his eardrums.

Soon afterward, the brothers were sent back to the States, but they arrived home with very different reactions to their war experiences. Tom was tortured by guilt over the people he had killed and seen killed. He believed that the war had been a waste and was immoral. "To the day I die, I will be ashamed I fought in this war," he wrote to their younger brother Mike, who couldn't serve because of a bad knee. When he came home, he drank heavily. After a year, he entered college and eventually became a law professor at the University of Dayton. Today, Tom--bearded, taller and thinner than his brother, his eyes betraying sadness rather than anger--considers himself a liberal Democrat.

Chuck, by contrast, remained convinced that he had done his patriotic duty by fighting. "Chuck believed it was right for us to be there, that we were defending freedom," Mike Hagel recalls. The future senator later told Myra MacPherson for her 1984 book about Vietnam vets, Long Time Passing, that he believed "If America was involved, then it's right." Unlike his brother, Chuck did not go on a bender when he came home; but he also didn't return to the life he had led before going to war. He went back to college at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. After living for six months with Tom near campus, he rented a house in the country. He went to classes but kept to himself for a year. "It was the strangest thing, so out of character for someone like me," he told MacPherson. "Then I woke up one morning and said, 'OK, enough of this. It's time to get back into society.'" In many ways, he simply put the war behind him- -or so he believed. "I went about trying to get my life in order and not reaching back into what happened," he told MacPherson. "I don't have these same problems that Tom has about guilt and these emotional feelings."

But Tom told a different story about his older brother. "I've seen him break down," he explained to MacPherson. "I know we share some nightmares. He has just suppressed them so deeply. But he's going to have to walk through the valley sometime."

Chuck Hagel may not have dwelled on his own experiences in the war, but, like Colin Powell, his view of the world would come to bear the imprint of Vietnam. After graduating from college in 1971, Hagel went to Washington, where he got a job on McCollister's staff. When Reagan took office in 1981, Hagel was appointed deputy director of the Veterans Administration. He followed that job with a brief, but spectacularly successful, career as a cell phone promoter. Then, in 1986, Hagel took over the United Service Organization (USO) and revived it. When he was elected to the Senate in 1996, he surprised his colleagues by making the Foreign Relations Committee, which had become a backwater under North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, his first choice.

Hagel's worldview was almost entirely self-taught--in speeches, he still mispronounces George Kennan's last name "Keenan"--but it was not the worldview of a typical Nebraskan. The state had been a center of isolationist sentiment before each world war. Its farmers were interested in foreign trade but not really in foreign policy. Yet Hagel was a committed internationalist who looked upon the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and nato as essential ingredients of U.S. foreign policy. "Borderless challenges will require borderless solutions," he declared in his first major foreign policy address in September 1998. But his internationalism was tempered by realism about what the United States could accomplish overseas. He was wary of attempts to use American power to create democracy. Like former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who would become a friend and adviser, Hagel thought the United States should seek stability, security, and prosperity. He later called his outlook "principled realism."

Like Powell, Hagel was hesitant to throw American soldiers into combat unless it was absolutely necessary, and he blanched at politicians who advocated going to war but had no personal experience of it. After a rancorous debate over foreign policy with a Republican primary opponent in 1996, Hagel said to an aide, "He has no idea what it is like to have his face down in the mud and having bullets flying over his head."

During his first term, Hagel applied his "principled realism" to U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein. He voted for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which committed the United States to removing Saddam and promoting a "democratic government" in Iraq, but he expressed reservations about its intent to fellow Nebraskan Bob Kerrey, a sponsor of the bill. "He was very skeptical about the desirability of democracy being established," Kerrey recalls.

Hagel was even more skeptical about using military force to oust Saddam. "With the current tensions in this region and the grim prospects for peace in the Middle East, this area of the world could erupt like a tinderbox," Hagel said in a floor speech that February. When McCain advocated air strikes against Iraq's Republican Guard, Hagel cautioned that "the military option alone will not work," and he warned against the "trap of doing something, anything, just because we said we would and the world expects us to."

Hagel first began to have misgivings about the Bush administration's foreign policy after the president's 2002 State of the Union address, in which Bush used the term "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. When Powell came before the Foreign Relations Committee the following month, Hagel chided him about the speech. "Actions and words have consequences that are very dangerous at a time in the history of man when there's little margin of error left," he said. That August, after Dick Cheney had made the case for invading Iraq in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville, Hagel recoiled. He warned against attempts "to scare the American public by saying this guy is a couple of months away from not only possessing nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile to deliver those." A few days earlier, he had told Newsweek, "It's interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit."

Hagel voted for the resolution authorizing the administration to use force against Iraq--but he did so, he said, on the basis of assurances from Powell and Bush that the United States would pursue a diplomatic strategy first. Hagel's speech in favor of the resolution could easily have been given by an opponent of the war. "To succeed, our commitment must extend beyond the day after to the months and years after Saddam is gone," he said. "The American people must be told of this long-term commitment, risk, and costs of this undertaking. We should not be seduced by the expectations of 'dancing in the streets' after Saddam's regime has fallen." As it became clear to Hagel in the winter of 2003 that the administration was bent on going to war regardless of what U.N. inspectors found, his criticisms of the administration grew harsher. In December, Hagel co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with Joe Biden. They wrote, "Going it alone and imposing a U.S.-led military government instead of a multinational civilian administration could turn us from liberators into occupiers, fueling resentment throughout the Arab world." At the University of Notre Dame the following month, Hagel said he did not "see democracy taking quick root in Iraq and spreading throughout the Arab world."

Following the invasion, Hagel alternately criticized and expressed confidence in the administration's conduct of the war. He joined McCain, Biden, and Senator Jack Reed--a Democrat and former Army captain who is Hagel's closest friend in the Senate--in urging Bush to send more troops to pacify the country. In September 2004, he worried that "we're in deep trouble in Iraq," and, in November, he complained, "I don't think we have enough troops. We didn't have enough going in." But then, in December, he expressed optimism that the elections the Bush administration planned for Iraq would bring "peace and security in the Middle East." He was a critic, but not yet a heretic.

Sometime in 2006, Hagel's outlook darkened. Partly, that was because of what he saw happening on the ground in Iraq. But, partly, it was because he was once again thinking about a subject he had long repressed: Vietnam.

Hagel had begun revisiting his experience in Vietnam years earlier. In 1999, Nebraska public television aired a documentary, "Echoes of War," based on Chuck and Tom Hagel's visit to Vietnam to open the new U.S. consulate in Saigon. He also became a regular speaker at Vietnam memorial events. Hagel himself says that his interest in Vietnam was reignited sometime in 1999, when he listened to a tape of Lyndon Johnson's conversation with Senator Richard Russell about the war. On that tape, when Russell advises Johnson to pull out of Vietnam, Johnson agrees that U.S. intervention could end in disaster but expresses fear that, if he does withdraw, he will be impeached.

Hagel probably did begin reading about Vietnam in 1999, when he and his brother visited the country, but the opinions he expressed during that visit and over the next two years were no different from those he had expressed 20 years before. While critical of the way the war was prosecuted, Hagel claimed that it had ultimately proved beneficial. "If the United States had not made a stand in Vietnam, ... the face of Southeast Asia would look very different from what it does today," he said during his 1999 visit. Two years later, speaking at the Vietnam Memorial, he made exactly the same point.

Tom Hagel says his brother's reevaluation of Vietnam began in earnest a few years later. "It was the run-up to the invasion of Iraq where you [began to] see all of this just flood out," he says. "Since that time, standing back, watching and talking to him, there were at least a few times a year, it was like watching someone growing increasingly obsessed and frustrated with what he sees going on around him and feels powerless to change it." According to Tom, during "the last year or two," as Chuck read more about the history of the war, his views on Vietnam changed dramatically. "I have never seen him change an opinion on anything in my life so quickly as he did after this information," Tom says. "It shocked me when he told me about it."

The first public inkling of Hagel's changed outlook would come in a profile of him in November 2004 by Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser. Hagel described the learning process he was going through. "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." Hagel now saw the war in Vietnam, like the war in Iraq, as a war of choice--one that had been built on an edifice of lies.

Hagel began to believe that the United States had gone to war in Vietnam and had continued fighting partly for narrow political reasons--to avoid being impeached, in Johnson's case, or to avoid being "the first American president to lose a war," in Richard Nixon's words. He and his brother had been "used" for ignoble ends. That's what Tom Hagel had been saying all along. Says Mike Hagel, "Chuck totally agrees with Tom now."

Sometime in the last year, Hagel began to apply these conclusions to Iraq. Two things spurred him to do so. First, during several trips to the Middle East with Reed, he came to believe that the United States was throwing soldiers into the midst of another nation's civil war. "Chuck and I had the realization that this was a profoundly political and not a military problem," Reed says. "The Iraqis have to resolve this civil war and conflict."

Second, Bush's response last December to the Baker-Hamilton report greatly disturbed Hagel. He had enthusiastically backed the commission's recommendation to "engage directly with Iran and Syria" and to move "combat forces out of Iraq responsibly." He expected that the administration would accept the report's recommendations; and, when Bush ignored them and opted instead to send more troops to Iraq, Hagel had a sense of deja vu. When I asked him if Bush's surge had brought the comparison with Vietnam into focus, he said that was "exactly right." The arguments Bush is using to justify his "escalation," Hagel told me-- he refuses to use the word "surge"--"are the same arguments we used in Vietnam."

Hagel was struck, he said, by "the dishonesty of both wars." And he sees the soldiers as victims of this dishonesty. Tom Hagel thinks it is this realization above all that is driving his brother's anger. "He knows what these people are getting into that we send over there," Tom says. "And he is so incredibly frustrated that he can't convince his colleagues that this is so important, this is so vital, this is so real that you've got to listen to me and follow my suggestions."

It was this frustration, Tom believes, that was "driving him to run for president." But the same frustration was also leading his brother to make statements and cast votes that undermined his chances of ever making it to the White House.

Hagel will not be pleased with this portrait of his political evolution on Iraq and Vietnam. As I learned when I interviewed him, he is not given to introspection and gets annoyed at questions that have a psychological dimension. But it is precisely Hagel's determined resistance to introspection that lends the story of his evolution poignancy and credibility. He is a man who decided, as he told his biographer Charlyne Berens, to take "the American Legion path" when he came home from Vietnam--and did so for many decades. It was only when faced with the onset of a new war--one that he saw "chewing" up a generation like his own--that he was forced to reconsider his past.

Hagel's fury over Iraq has unsettled his political life. He has been at odds with the White House for at least five years, but he has now alienated some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Even his friendship with McCain, who was once his mentor, appears to be on the rocks. In early February, Hagel called a McCain resolution on the Iraq war "intellectually dishonest." When a reporter from GQ asked Hagel this winter how serving in Vietnam had affected his decisions on Iraq, he drew a cruel contrast between his service and McCain's: "When I got to Vietnam, I was a rifleman. I was a private, about as low as you can get. So my frame of reference is very much geared toward the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and dying. ... John McCain served his country differently--he spent five years as a prisoner of war. ... I don't think my experience makes me any better, but it does make me very sober about committing our nation to war." In March, after Hagel had voted for the Democratic resolution on withdrawal from Iraq, McCain fired back. "My views are not framed by events that happened thirty years ago," he said. "I don't think it would be fair to my constituents, intellectually, to have my views formed only by that one experience of my life. That's maybe where Chuck and I have some differences." McCain's comments were as cruel as Hagel's. And they were also hypocritical, given that McCain invariably uses his own experience as a prisoner of war to attract support for his current stance.

In Washington, Hagel is reviled by neoconservatives. "I think the appeasers ought to have a candidate in the Republican primaries, and he's their ideal standard-bearer," wrote Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute. At the same time, he is cheered by conservative war critics like Grover Norquist and Robert Novak and by center-left foreign policy experts. Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski says of Hagel, "I like the guy, and I admire his views. We see eye-to-eye on the majority of issues. I won't say we see eye-to-eye on every issue, but if you ask what we don't agree on, I wouldn't be able to answer."

Last winter, I heard from people close to Hagel that he was preparing to announce an exploratory committee to run for president. That would have allowed him to raise money for a presidential campaign without yet committing himself to the race. And, when his office sent out "urgent" e-mails in large type announcing that he would give a press conference in Omaha on March 12, I expected, as did most other members of the media, that he was about to announce the committee's formation. But Hagel, with the Nebraska governor and McCollister seated in the front row, and with CNN and msnbc carrying the event live, surprised the press by postponing any announcement. It was a bizarre performance by a politician who, in the past, had been very sure-footed and decisive. Pundits termed it Hagel's "March madness."

Hagel claimed that he wasn't ready because he still wanted to devote himself to Senate business; but, according to his advisers, he had become plagued by political uncertainty. He wanted to see if McCain's campaign continued to flounder, and he also wanted to see if he could raise enough money to run. At the time, he still insisted that he had a chance to win over Republican voters. "If I didn't think that, I wouldn't have interest in any of this business," he told me at the end of March.

Two months later, Hagel appears to have concluded that he has little chance as a Republican. When I asked him whether anything in particular had convinced him to consider running as an independent, he predictably said, "No," but he made clear that he had been stung by his party's revolt against him. "My loyalty is first to country, and I appreciate some in my party don't accept that," he said. Still, no one I talked to believes Hagel will actually run as an independent. Some people who know him think he is going to quit politics entirely, while others believe that he will be loath to turn his back on a challenge from an upstart like Bruning. One person who has worked with him questions whether Hagel has lost his moorings. "I just don't know what is going on in that guy's head," he says. "I can't tell if he is unusually smart or just lost it."

Yet what Hagel seems to have lost is not so much his sanity or his grasp of world politics--his recent floor speech opposing the Reid-Feingold bill, which would have entirely cut off war funding, was a model of sober intelligence--but rather the part of the political cerebellum that allows politicians to put career before conviction. In my final conversation with him, I asked whether he saw irony in the fact that, while his anger about the war was driving him to run for president, what he had said and done about the war was putting the Republican nomination out of reach. I told him that he seemed to be paying a price for honesty. Hagel laughed. "Of course there is a price for honesty in politics," he said. "Are you paying it?" I asked. He replied, "I'll let others make that judgment."

This article ran in the June 4, 2007 issue of the magazine.