I still remember being at a foreign-policy themed Washington conference roughly eight years ago and listening to our lunchtime speaker, Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska. I had a vague sense of who he was, but he wasn’t much of a figure on my radar screen at the point. However, thirty minutes later, after he had delivered his talk, I was astonished. He had picked a fairly obscure topic—U.S. relations with Central Asia—and the remarks he gave were lively, penetrating, critical, and demonstrated that he knew a great deal about the subject matter on which he was speaking. I walked out of that luncheon asking: why is it that I have heard so little about this guy? In the years that followed, I kept track of Hagel regularly and was never less than impressed.
What marks his speaking? He’s original, not constrained by party loyalty and very much concerned about his country and where it was going. That afternoon he delivered a penetrating assessment of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy in an area whose significance was rising on the world stage. He complimented them on what they did right, but he hammered away on the judgmental errors—in my book the critique was right on the money.
Time was when the U.S. Senate had a strong group of people like Hagel: political leaders who put partisanship aside, and put a frank expression of their views ahead of any sort of party-driven agenda. Over time there have come to be fewer of them. And now, Hagel is departing the Senate. That will be a loss for the country.
It is also very telling that for the Republican Party, men like Hagel would, in the past, have been obvious contenders for the presidency or for a cabinet post. But not in the party that Karl Rove has crafted, where the race is on to embrace increasingly unreasoned positions that continuously cross the frontier into demagoguery. Hagel has some stern words for the leadership that has brought his party down. The Washington Post reports:
Hagel, who considered running for the GOP presidential nomination as an antiwar candidate, told the foreign policy experts that he would give the Bush administration “the lowest grade of any I’ve known.”
“I have to say this is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen or ever read about,” Hagel said, according to our colleague Robert Kaiser, who attended the speech. In case his audience didn’t get the point, Hagel also said: “They have failed the country.”