California Literary Review

Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward – by Charlyne Berens

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April 22nd, 2007 at 8:07 am

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Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward
by Charlyne Berens
University of Nebraska Press, 223 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Chuck Hagel Tests the Presidential Waters

Some less than exhaustive research suggests that this book is a first: a campaign biography published by an academic press. The author is a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, a public institution which is also the seat of the publisher.

Charles Timothy Hagel, Republican, has served since 1997 as one of the two United States Senators from Nebraska. The purpose of the book comes clear in its final chapter, which concludes that Mr. Hagel may be “going for the big one,” possible election to the Presidency in 2008. Since the book appeared, there have been reports that he will soon announce his candidacy; he had, however, not done so as of the beginning of January 2007.

One wonders whether Professor Berens and the University of Nebraska Press have set an example with this book that will be followed by others. Nebraska’s other Senator, Ben Nelson, is a Democrat. So far, the catalog of the University of Nebraska Press lacks any works on him. Nor, for example, does one find any works on George W. Bush published by university presses in Texas, or by the presses of the two universities where he studied, Yale and Harvard. Perhaps, though, this reviewer is behind the times. He still fails, for example, to understand how publishers can permit authors to tamper with history under the label of “literary nonfiction.” (One such author says she has “taken very few liberties with the historical record.” Does that not take her work wholly out of the nonfiction category?)

Senator Hagel has in any case led an interesting, productive, and in many ways admirable life. Professor Berens describes with considerable frankness his childhood and youth. By the time Chuck Hagel was fifteen years old he, his parents, and his three younger brothers had lived in five Nebraska towns, as his father repeatedly changed jobs. We are told that his father had a drinking problem, but that he was not abusive. Perhaps the more important fact for Chuck Hagel’s development was that the parents attended church, and the sons did, too–and that the father died at 39 when Chuck was a high-school junior, and a new burden fell on the eldest son. He seems to have lived up to his responsibilities. Berens quotes one of his brothers as saying that he did not try to function as a father, “but as the head male in the pack.” He also worked at a variety of jobs, during and between school terms, but that was not unusual for a Midwestern boy.

The first question about Hagel’s character that may rise in readers’ minds–remember that we are examining a man who seeks the most challenging job in America if not the world–comes with his college years. He tried two colleges but left both. In each case, a pinched nerve prevented him from playing football, but perhaps more important was that at nineteen he was, the author says, “unsettled.” Like many other young men, he did some drinking. But then he went to Minneapolis, and while working at odd jobs he successfully completed a one-year course at the Brown Institute of Radio and Television. Although our author does not say so, a number of graduates of the Institute (now Brown College) have had successful media careers, e.g. Tim Russell of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Hagel came back to Nebraska in 1967 and went to work for a radio station in Lincoln; but Uncle Sam wanted him.

In 1967 American military involvement in Vietnam was deepening, and America drafted its young men. College students could obtain deferment from the draft. Berens says that Hagel’s draft board “…suggested to him that he reenroll in college if he wanted to avoid Vietnam. It was perfectly legal, but Hagel declined the offer….He told the draft board he’d like to volunteer immediately for the army. The board members were stunned.”

This account stuns. The draft board would have been derelict in its duty–which was to secure young men for military service–if it had urged a particular young man to take steps to avoid being called up. But no young man then had to be told there were student deferments. And volunteering for the draft was nothing unusual. Many men who wanted to get in, and out, of the army as fast as they could did the same thing; volunteering simply put one’s name on the callup list above those who did not volunteer.

What is more important than any of the above is the fact that Chuck Hagel went to Vietnam as a private, eventually was promoted to sergeant and squad leader, fought bravely, and returned home after a year with several decorations, including two Purple Hearts for battle wounds. (His brother Tom, who served with him, came home with three Purple Hearts.)

By this point, it seems, Hagel had cast off what might be called his youthful lassitude. He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, found what at first was a temporary job with a Nebraska Congressman in Washington, and began, as Berens says, to climb Capitol Hill–and not just Capitol Hill. He went to work for Firestone Tire’s Washington office, and became the company’s chief lobbyist. He went to work for Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign, and was rewarded after Reagan’s 1980 victory by being made the deputy administrator of the then Veterans Administration. Next he went into the cellular telephone business, and made millions. For a time he headed the United Service Organization. From what Berens tells us, he did an excellent job of restructuring the USO, an organization that had been helping American military personnel since World War II and badly needed streamlining. In the mid-1990s, Hagel returned to Omaha and joined an investment banking firm, the McCarthy Group, in which he continues to have a sizable interest today. In 1996, Hagel ran for the Senate and won, and was reelected in 2002 for a new six-year term which will end in January 2009, the month when a new President is to take office.

Berens’ account of Hagel’s Senate years is no more critical than what she writes about his earlier life. On the environment, for example, we read without comment by the author or others that Hagel–a leader in Senate opposition to the Kyoto Protocol–now acknowledges that global warming is an important question, or at least “a big deal to our allies.” A balanced portrait of Mr. Hagel might have made clear that overall he scores low on environmental protection. The latest scorecard of the League of Conservation Voters gives Hagel just 14%. (This League is not a leftwing group; its board includes, for example, Theodore Roosevelt IV, a Republican and managing director of Lehman Brothers.) Hagel’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, scores 29%. Of his Democratic rivals in the Senate, Hilary Clinton of New York gets 71%, and Barack Obama of Illinois 100%. And while Hagel might prefer that America not focus on global warming, Iowa’s Democratic governor, Tom Vilsack, is putting the problem at the forefront of his campaign for the Presidency.

Chuck Hagel, says our author, has had a lifelong fascination with foreign affairs. He pushed successfully to join the Foreign Relations Committee when he joined the Senate. He has been deeply concerned with the problems the United States faces in Iraq and the Middle East, warning in late November 2006 of “impending disaster” in Iraq. Since the release of the report of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on December 6, 2006, Hagel has emphasized, in general agreement with Baker and Hamilton, the need for the U.S. to pursue an Iraq settlement not just with the parties in Iraq but with Iraq’s neighbors and the international community. All this puts Senator Hagel at some odds with President Bush. A main question, although our author does not mention it, is to what extent Senator Hagel should, or can, as a Republican candidate distance himself from the Republican now in the White House.

  • mw

    Republicans better hope that Chuck Hagel runs for president. After GWB’s impending sacrificial “surge”, the election will be about the war and little else. There is exactly one Republican candidate who has been on the right side of this war since the beginning, and that is Hagel, and that makes him the only electable Republican in 2008.

    Chuck is prominently featured in my most recent YouTube effort “It’s the war, stupid.” and my most recent blog post of the same name.

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