Did anyone tell Chuck Hagel there would be questions?
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Everyone who paid a little attention to Chuck Hagel’s nomination to run the Department of Defense knew that he’d have to answer for his juicy quotes about Israel and foreign policy. At least, everyone should have told Chuck Hagel. For seven hours, his answers to Republicans in the Senate Armed Services Committee—one of his old committees!—ranged from passable to apocalyptic.
“Explain this a bit,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was a Hagel critic before he was even nominated. “You said, ‘The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.’ ‘I’m not an Israeli senator; I’m a United States senator.’ ‘This pressure makes us do dumb things at times.’ ”
That last quote wasn’t even correct. In a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller, one of the most famous pieces of Hageliana, the senator said he’d “argued against the dumb things they do”—they being the Israel lobby. He didn’t sign one particular open letter supporting Israel because “it was a stupid letter.”
But Graham ran with the misquote. “Name one person in your opinion who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby,” he said.
“Well, uh, first … ” started Hagel.
Graham interrupted him. “Name one.”
Hagel shrugged. “Uh, I don’t know.”
Three weeks ago, Hagel broke typical nominee protocol by talking to the media—the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star—and rebutting this attack. “I didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem,” he said. He’d ducked some popular pro-Israel letters in resolutions because they couldn’t answer his question: “How does that further the peace process in the Middle East?”
But when it counted, Hagel drifted.
“Well, why would you say that?” asked Graham.
“I didn’t have in mind a specific person …” started Hagel.
“It was an injurious, provocative statement,” said Graham. “I can’t think of a more provocative thing to say about the relationship between the United States and Israel, and the Senate and the Congress, than what you said.”
Hagel has one of the saddest faces in politics, one that used to be captured in black and white for magazine profiles about his manful truth-telling. “Hagel is typically more interested in facts on the ground than doctrine,” wrote Joseph Lelyveld in a 2006 take, when Hagel was daydreaming about the 2008 presidential nomination. “He's a politician with attributes that are supposedly sought by the people who package candidates.” Graham, a former JAG lawyer, made that media hero unrecognizable. He jerked around in his chair, as if Hagel’s dissembling caused him physical pain. When an answer started to wander, Graham cut it short—“I gotcha”—and moved on.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.