As a senator, Hagel angered those factions by voting against some sanctions against Iran and by trying to undercut their arguments about the need to consider military action against Tehran to prevent it from going nuclear. In addition, Hagel has signaled a willingness to negotiate with the Iranians and the Palestinian Hamas movement, despite their hostility toward Israel.
Some of Hagel’s opponents have gone further by implying that he is anti-Semitic. They cite a comment he made in an interview for a book published in 2008, when he said: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he does not believe Hagel is an anti-Semite — “absolutely not,” he said — but added that he believes the former senator’s use of the expression “Jewish lobby” “borders on anti-Semitism.”
“We’re not going on a campaign. We’re not against him,” Foxman said in a telephone call from Israel, where he was traveling. “But his appointment would be of concern and troubling to the community.”
Hagel’s supporters say his critics are misrepresenting his positions. Any suggestion that the former senator is anti-Semitic is “crossing a line,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group.
“We’re tremendously supportive. We find him to be a true expert and a real guiding light on national security,” Ben-Ami said. “We’re frankly very disturbed to watch some of the attempts going on to disqualify him. Throwing around charges of anti-Semitism so lightly really dilutes the term to the point it becomes meaningless.”
A military upbringing
Hagel was born in North Platte, Neb., in 1946. His parents married shortly after his father, Charles, returned from the Pacific theater, where he served in the Navy during World War II.
Chuck was the eldest of four children, all boys. The family was poor and moved from small town to small town across Nebraska because their father had trouble holding a job. Charles Hagel was a hard drinker and sometimes physically abusive, traits that his sons later came to associate with post-traumatic stress from the war. He died at age 39 of a heart attack, leaving 16-year-old Chuck as the man of the family.
Five years later, Chuck Hagel enlisted in the Army. He was sent to Vietnam, where he served in the 9th Infantry Division.
His brother Tom, two years younger, joined up soon after. Unusually, the brothers were assigned to the same squad. The first time Chuck was struck by shrapnel, Tom stopped the bleeding and saved his life. During a second mine attack a month later, the roles were reversed and Chuck rescued Tom, who was knocked unconscious in the explosion.
After they came home from the front, the brothers argued violently over the meaning of Vietnam. Chuck saw it as a righteous cause. Tom, disillusioned, became a vocal opponent of the war and a liberal Democrat. Fistfights failed to settle their differences.
Over time, however, the future senator changed his mind. He has said the final straw came with the release of taped conversations in which President Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledged that the war was unwinnable but that he would send more troops to Vietnam anyway.
Clashes with GOP
Hagel first came to Washington in the 1970s as a GOP congressional staffer. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. But he quit after clashing with his boss, Robert Nimmo, who curtailed veterans’ benefits and compared the side effects of exposure to Agent Orange to “a little teenage acne.”
With his political options limited, Hagel entered the business world and hit the jackpot, helping to start a telecommunications firm that specialized in a new technology: cellphones.
In 1996, Hagel returned to Washington as Nebraska’s first Republican senator in a quarter-century. He was reelected six years later with 83 percent of the vote and was a rising star in the GOP. That began to change after the invasion of Iraq.
Hagel’s relentless criticisms of the Bush administration — especially Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld — isolated him within the party, even as Democrats warmed to him.
“I remember him telling me how uncomfortable it was for him to go to Republican caucus meetings, especially when Cheney was there,” said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University who served on Hagel’s staff as an academic observer while conducting research. “Hagel would go, and Cheney would sort of give him the hairy eyeball.”
But the hostility from the White House and the party leadership failed to mute Hagel. “The Vietnam experience, I think, gave him the boldness to speak independently,” Baker said. “It’s kind of hard to intimidate a combat veteran by threatening to withdraw a committee assignment.”
Hagel remains personally close to many of his former colleagues in the Senate. But some GOP senators have signaled that they are concerned about the objections by pro-Israel groups, raising the possibility that Hagel might face stiffer questioning from Republicans than Democrats if nominated.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a foreign policy mentor to Hagel who is leaving the Senate after losing his reelection bid in a primary, called the Nebraskan “an excellent candidate.” But he stopped short of saying that Hagel would sail to confirmation.
“Most senators who served with Chuck would be favorable to his nomination,” Lugar said, before noting that the chamber has changed in makeup since Hagel left four years ago.
Might his nomination run into trouble? “I would hope not, but I have no way of knowing in advance,” Lugar said.