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Norm Kurz Headshot

The Real Reason Chuck Hagel Is in Trouble

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The United States Senate is a funny place, not in the sense of humorous, but funny in the old fashioned use of the word, as in curious, odd, strange. It is comprised mostly of men and a few women of outsized egos, almost unanimous in their firm belief that they are politically more astute, morally more pure and, generally speaking, smarter and wiser than their colleagues. They are all in on the conspiracy to promote the false notion that the Senate is a friendly place, where members lock arms to step forward in pursuit of the national good, unlike the small minded members who populate the House.

Senators typically disdain the House and its members, viewing it as an institution not ready for the grown up world of the statesman; they share a certainty that if only they had the keys to the Oval Office the U.S. and the world would be in much better shape; and they are endlessly irritated by the need to put up with 99 other senators, the bozos and blowhards they call "good friends," but who only stand in the way of curing what ails society.

This is the environment into which presidential nominees are thrown, amid the rabid crowd of potential judges and juries whose cup of seasonal merriment is overflowing with the president's gift of a trial balloon in the form of the Chuck-Hagel-for-Defense-Secretary pinata.

Conventional wisdom's critique of former Senator Hagel focuses on comments, views and positions attributed to him relating to Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Central Asia, gay rights and the Lindburgh baby. Hagel is said to be in trouble because he actually believes it is possible to support Israel as a democratic ally without agreeing with its prime minister, or its most powerful American lobby, 100 percent of the time.

This question increasingly is being debated in part because the president, who repeatedly and consistently has stood with Israel at crucial moments, seems to share Hagel's belief that AIPAC does not have a monopoly on defining who or what is "pro-Israel."

No longer content with the constitutional responsibility of confirming some presidential nominees, the Senate is a place where grudges and vendettas rule the day. Of course, a small club of 100 members always entertained intrigue and shady dealings, but in the good old days there seemed to be room for conducting important business. No one in America believes Congress is capable of that today.

Hagel's crime is one of independence, of refusing to fall in line behind every bad idea just because his Republican colleagues both in the Senate and the White House insisted his oath of office was to them. And the most egregious and unforgivable example of Hagel's insolence was his quiet but firm opposition to President Bush's nomination of John Bolton to serve as UN ambassador.

The nomination never reached the floor of the Senate, as Bolton failed to receive sufficient votes from the Republican controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The key vote wasn't even Hagel's; his Republican colleague from Ohio, George Voinovich, was so offended to learn that Bolton used to chase women up and down hotel corridors and otherwise was known to engage in sexual harassment, that he could not bring himself to approve Bolton, even in the face of enormous party pressure.

But it was Hagel who quietly loathed Bolton, never understanding how the President could nominate for the UN position a man who once declared the UN would be a better place if several floors of the building, and its good-for-nothing employees, were chopped off.

The Bolton nomination at the time took on larger importance than the job merited because the candidate enjoyed being a lightning rod, often spouting off provocative pronouncements, shooting from the hip, and otherwise giving no evidence that he was capable of acting in a diplomatic manner if he got the UN position. It was no accident that some claimed after his candidacy crashed that he had been Borked.

Now, many years later, we are witnessing payback, and it's hell for Hagel. The self righteous, politically resentful GOP once again is eating its own, hoping this affair will serve as a teaching moment for junior members. The Middle East issues matter, but are more important to provide cover for the underlying motives that reek of pettiness. You may think that getting to the Senate proves you are playing in the big leagues, my good friend, but there is no reward for stepping out of line. Put your two Purple Hearts back in the box, and learn to march to our tune, soldier. Dismissed.