Chuck Hagel salutes John McCain, his longtime friend
From the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., to the Arizona desert 2,000 miles away, Chuck Hagel salutes John McCain.
This salute comes from an Army infantry sergeant twice wounded in combat in Vietnam to a Navy officer pilot who spent more than five years imprisoned in Hanoi after his plane was shot down in 1967, emerging as an authentic American hero who is writing the last chapter of his remarkable story now.
It comes from an old friend whose best-buddy relationship with McCain was ruptured by deep policy differences over the war in Iraq, ultimately spilling across TV screens during contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense in 2013.
“The respect I have for John has not ever wavered and I have deep affection for that man,” Hagel said during a telephone conversation from his home a few days ago as he saluted his old friend who is battling terminal brain cancer at home with yet one more display of bravery.
“There is so much I admire about him,” Hagel said.
“I still hold John McCain in the highest regard. I’ve thought about him a lot.”
They last talked when they both showed up early for a preview of Ken Burns’ newest TV documentary on the Vietnam War at the Kennedy Center last fall.
McCain and Hagel shared the stage with Burns and former Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator and fellow Vietnam veteran, in Washington that night.
“John (McCain) and I were alone for a while and we had a great time. We talked about the world and the government and it was really fun,” Hagel said.
“Just like the old days when he would come out to Nebraska.”
McCain campaigned in Nebraska for Hagel when he was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and he showed up many times after that, full of energy and enthusiasm and a quick wit.
When they were last together, McCain already was sick, Hagel said.
“I was amazed he held up as well as he did that night.”
McCain and Hagel traveled the world together when they were both in the Senate, even venturing quietly into northern Iraq once not long before war began.
Hagel co-chaired McCain’s first presidential campaign in 2000, traveled on the lively Straight Talk campaign bus in New Hampshire with him, lashed out at the George W. Bush campaign after it subsequently upended McCain in South Carolina with an assist from some race-baiting attacks, and introduced him at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
And it was Hagel who was the go-between who arranged a unity meeting with Bush after the bruising Republican battle was done, at the urgent request of Bush operative Karl Rove.
McCain and Hagel had Senate offices across the hall from one another in the Russell Building for eight years and dropped in on each other often. One Halloween day, Hagel burst into McCain’s office wearing a McCain mask and promptly fired his entire Senate staff.
“It was like a Senate buddy movie,” The New York Times once wrote.
McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign was launched at the Hagel house with Hagel and his wife, Lilibet, hosting about 100 people at a big outdoor dinner in 1999.
Hagel subsequently traveled to Arizona for a big fundraiser and a dinner, staying at the McCain home.
“I’ve been with him on a lot of highs and some lows,” Hagel recalled.
Sometimes they had legislative differences, like the shape of competing campaign finance reform plans; sometimes their legislative proposals were more closely matched, like the substance of immigration reform.
“Those differences never came between us,” Hagel said. “We never let our friendship die. There were so many things we did together. And then the Iraq War came along.
“It was a terribly divisive thing,” Hagel said.
“I don’t blame anybody. I’m just sorry it got so out of hand.”
Hagel was vilified by many Republicans for his outspoken opposition to the war; McCain supported it. The intensity of the debate ratcheted up when Hagel sharply opposed the so-called surge of U.S. military troops ordered by President Bush in 2007. McCain strongly supported the surge.
When McCain ran for president again in 2008, Hagel did not support him.
McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate particularly troubled Hagel, and he said so.
“I said she’s not qualified; she’s not prepared to be president if something happens.”
“That deepened that one-issue divide between John and me,” Hagel said.
(Interestingly, in his newly published memoirs, McCain writes the Iraq War “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it” and he says he wishes now he had chosen former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut as his 2008 running mate.)
“I remember talking to John after the election,” Hagel said. “As I walked up the steps with him, I invited him into the office for a cup of coffee.
“One of the misconceptions was that I endorsed Barack Obama. I did not. Obama asked me three times to endorse him. I told John I will never ever do anything to hurt you.”
Earlier that year, when McCain campaigned in Omaha in July, he expressed his personal affection and friendship for Hagel during an interview at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum near Ashland despite Hagel’s decision not to endorse him.
“No, I am not disappointed,” McCain said as he sat in the midst of an exhibit of aging military aircraft.
“I went to Chuck’s office a couple of weeks ago and we sat down and talked. We remain very close and dear friends.”
Five years later, in 2013, Obama nominated Hagel to be U.S. secretary of defense and his Senate confirmation hearing was dominated by sharp questioning by Republican senators, including McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Graham employed a prosecutorial style that never allowed Hagel to complete his answer to a question before being confronted by another one.
Hagel eventually was confirmed on a sharply divided 58-41 vote, with McCain voting no. Only four Republicans voted yes, including Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
Before McCain left Washington to return to Arizona in December, Hagel tried to arrange a time to “go by and see him, but it never worked out.”
The chat at the Kennedy Center may have to do.
“I felt very good about that; it was like old times,” Hagel said. “We talked about the seriousness of what’s going on.
“It was very refreshing and renewing and it made me very happy.
“I’ll always cherish that time I had with him.”