Chuck Hagel, the president notes, stands to become the first enlisted man to serve as secretary of defense.
If confirmed by the Senate where he once served with his brother, he’ll be one of few secretaries who have been wounded in war, and the first veteran of the Vietnam War to do so.
The Republican from Nebraska stands in one well-trod path at the Pentagon, however: Bill Clinton, a Democrat, tapped Senator William Cohen of Maine, a Republican, to run the Pentagon. President Barack Obama, a Democrat, kept Republican President George W. Bush’s last secretary of defense, Robert Gates for a time. And in a capital where Republicans are itching to cut the federal budget, Hagel stands ready to do so.
A decorated war hero who still carries shrapnel from his service, Hagel views war as “the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.” He said so in a 2002 interview for the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center. “There’s no glory, only suffering in war.”
He made his fortune in telecommunications, founding a cellular company later acquired by AT&T, so he’s unlikely angling for some big defense contracting work such as that which Dick Cheney found at Haliburton after running the Pentagon.
He served 12 years in the Senate, and made a lot of enemies along the way — particularly in his own party, as Bloomberg’s David Lerman writes in a profile of Obama’s nominee for defense secretary.
The animosity that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina displays for Hagel today in a promised confirmation fight probably has more to do with the way Hagel clashed with Graham, Sen. John McCain and others in opposing the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq than Graham’s stated objections about Hagel’s support for Israel. Hagel also declined to endorse McCain, a fellow Vietnam veteran who was held prisoner of war for five and a half years, in his campaign for president in 2008.
“Maybe I have no political future,” Hagel said at a Senate hearing during the Iraq surge debate. “I don’t care about that. But I don’t ever want to look back and have the regret that I didn’t have the courage and I didn’t do what I could to at least project something.”
For all the reasons noted at the start, Obama calls Hagel’s potential leadership of the military “historic.”
“Maybe most importantly,” Obama said, “Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction.” Just as “Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother,” rescued from battle in Vietnam, “Secretary Hagel” will be there for the troops, he said: “They see one of their own.”