An Interview with Chuck Hagel

With former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel assuming  the  office of Secretary of Defense today, it seemed like a good time to take a look back at an interview I did with Hagel at the end of 2010. At the time, Hagel said he “wasn’t looking for work” but there were plenty of hints in there that a move such as the one he made today wouldn’t have been unwelcome.

Originally published in The Reader on Nov. 17, 2010

FINDING MIDDLE GROUND

Ask Chuck Hagel where American politics is headed and he’ll tell you to forget all the party rhetoric, all the headlines touting a fierce red-blue divide, and focus on the middle.

It’s a spot the former Nebraska senator knows well. In the waning years of his two-term Senate career, Hagel was rumored first as a 2008 Republican presidential candidate, then as a potential running mate for President Barack Obama. His reputation is not of crossing the aisle so much as occupying it.The America he sees today isn’t as polarized as TV talking heads make it seem.

“Registered Independents are, and have been the past few years, the plurality of registered voters in America,” Hagel says in an interview following his speech in the Collaborating Commons room in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service building at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Nov. 11. “What’s that tell you? We’re not going out toward more partisanship in the populace — just the opposite. People are going more inward, toward the center.”

While Republicans rode a powerful anti-incumbent backlash to take control of the House on Nov. 2, the center isn’t where Hagel sees his party headed. He says the emergence of far-right groups like the Tea Party could make things difficult for the GOP.

“It’s the extremes of both parties that control the parties, and now the Republican Party is really controlled by the extreme,” he says. “The next Republican presidential candidate is going to have to run that gauntlet tougher than anyone’s ever had to run it.

“Republicans are fighting Republicans. Conservatives are fighting conservatives. These are going to be tough times over the next two years.”

Seems like the perfect time for a candidate with a proven appeal to both parties: Is that candidate Hagel? He says he frequently talks with members of the Obama administration, but he’s happy serving as chair of the public policy think tank the Atlantic Corporation. Hagel continues to contribute politically as a member of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board.

“I’m not looking for work. I’m not looking for government work. I’m not looking for a new job,” says the 64-year-old, who looks young and fit in his charcoal suit and bright-blue tie.

His work as an Army sergeant in the Vietnam War brings Hagel to Omaha. In his speech to more than 100 people gathered at UNO for the school’s Veteran’s Day ceremony, he cautioned attendees about the growing disconnect he sees between the armed services and the public.

“We are unfortunately evolving into a country — not unlike Rome and some of the other great republics — where you’ve got a warrior class and then the rest of society,” he says. “You just buy the services.”

While American taxpayers foot the bill for defense spending, Hagel says that’s still not enough to keep them engaged with the 1 percent of the populace that does all of the fighting and dying. He says our all-volunteer service “means, for example, that 99 percent of America is not connected either directly or indirectly to any kind of service.

“If you disconnect society too much from those who serve, then you get kind of a fat, lazy, uninformed public that says, ‘I don’t know about that war in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever it may be, but the people fighting it? That’s their choice.’”

In 2004, Hagel stood before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and called for reinstating the military draft. He backed off those comments on Veteran’s Day but says mandatory service could’ve shortened the lengthy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Inheriting those two wars is a major reason Hagel says he’s still bullish on Obama, despite the president’s approval rating falling to its lowest point 10 days before the midterms.

“Everything is relative,” Hagel says. “Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan — Barack Obama was higher than all of them at the same time in their presidency.”

Add it all up — the wars, the recession, the Republican-controlled House — and Hagel sees a country searching for a new “center of gravity.”

“Politics reflects society. It doesn’t lead society, it doesn’t change society,” he says. “Politicians reflect who they represent. If they’re not responding, then there’s going to be something happening. “We are seeing a new governing coalition being built in this country — that’s what’s going on right now.”

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