WASHINGTON -- Max Cleland arrived in the U.S. Senate in 1997, and for the next six years fought for legislation alongside Chuck Hagel as part of a small cadre of Vietnam veterans on Capitol Hill with an uncanny knack for bipartisanship.
Now, as Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense awaits confirmation by the Senate, Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who lost his seat in the 2002 election, said he is mystified by the latest line of attack against Hagel: that he was a lousy colleague.
"I consider myself a close friend of Hagel -- then, in the years we were in the Senate, and now," Cleland told The Huffington Post on Thursday. "So the allegation that he didn't have friends in the Senate is a bunch of hooey, and you can spell that any way you want."
President Barack Obama's nomination of Hagel, a Republican, for secretary of defense has been under attack for weeks from critics who argue that his record on Iran sanctions, and his history of regrettable comments about the "Jewish lobby" and gays, make him unfit for a cabinet post.
Opponents of Hagel's confirmation have said they also object to Hagel's blunt and vociferous opposition to the war in Iraq in the mid-2000s, at a time when he regularly bucked his own party and president over foreign policy.
That brashness earned Hagel a reputation for independent thinking and integrity among some, but may not have earned him many friends within the old-boy network of the Senate.
Indeed, as The New York Times pointed out on Thursday, Hagel's three closest allies in the Senate were Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, and John Kerry -- all irrelevant figures as far as Hagel's confirmation is concerned, since they are out of the Senate or on the way out. (A fourth, it might be noted, was Barack Obama.)
Still, Cleland scoffed at the idea that Hagel was difficult to work with, or ought to have handled his war opposition more deftly.
"You're talking about war and peace here, not beach volleyball -- young Americans getting blown up every day in Iraq and Afghanistan," Cleland said. "Chuck and I testified before committees together, we sponsored legislation together, we passed bills together. Who's doing that in Washington now?"
Beneath the bluster, the actual number of senators who have stated they would vote against Hagel remains small, and Cleland said he believes that basic math won't change.
"I do not see the Senate rejecting Chuck Hagel," Cleland said. "He knows what he's doing and that's what we need right now. The members of the Senate can vote however they want, but in the end, you can't vote against Chuck."
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