A message for the prez
Sen. Chuck Hagel has some unvarnished advice for George W. Bush
Battered by the bad news out of Iraq, President George W. Bush decided it was time to stiffen the spines of some anxious Republicans on Capitol Hill last week. So he went to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and held an hourlong pep rally in a basement conference room at the Capitol. Many of the 200 House and Senate Republicans in attendance emerged to say they were reassured. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander called it "choir practice." But not for Chuck Hagel.
The 57-year-old Republican senator from Nebraska said the appearance by the president left more than a little to be desired. Bush "talked for an hour and did not take a single question," says Hagel. "He didn't listen, and I think this president needs to listen more. If he had taken questions he would have heard some things that might have been helpful."
The comments were vintage Hagel--calmly stated but brutally frank and increasingly troubling to an unsteady White House. Fellow Vietnam War veteran John McCain has long been the chief maverick among Senate Republicans, but it is Hagel, with his lower profile and sober demeanor, who may now be emerging as a more potent symbol of the angst that congressional Republicans are feeling over the direction of the war in Iraq--and its political consequences.
There's little doubt that Hagel has earned the right to speak up. A child of the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, he was working as a radio disc jockey when--along with his younger brother Tom--he volunteered for service in Vietnam. The brothers ended up in the same Army unit, and in March 1968, their armored personnel carrier rolled over a mine and went up in flames. Hagel, his face and chest on fire, dragged what he thought was his brother's lifeless body from the vehicle. Both survived, however, and spent months recovering in hospital beds next to each other. Chuck Hagel later became a successful businessman and moved into GOP politics.
"He is one of the few people [here] who actually fought in a war. I listen to him differently because of that," says Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Hagel also speaks from a powerful perch as the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There have been 19 Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Iraq in 17 months, and Hagel has used that platform to tell the president that, had he heeded some different voices before the invasion of Iraq, he would not be in the current mess.
Hagel, who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, says that Bush "may be more isolated than any president in recent memory" and therefore susceptible to faulty advice. Much of that advice, Hagel says, has come from Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and former Pentagon official Richard Perle. But the problem, in Hagel's view, was compounded by the president's lack of foreign-policy experience.
"I think you've got a president who is not schooled, educated, experienced in foreign policy in any way, versus his father," Hagel says. "I think he was philosophically, intellectually more in tune with the neoconservatives'approach to 'let's go get them, and we'll worry about it later.' "