Chuck Hagel's historic moment, and what it means for a declining presidency.
The rapier is more silver than the moon. The horse, red eyed and fierce in the California night, is rearing up, and its rider points his sword toward the sky, and its tip seems to touch the lunar surface, dimpling it further between the craters.
On the wall near his desk in the Russell Senate Office Building, Chuck Hagel has hung a painting of Zorro done by his brother Mike. "Isn't that a great effect?" asks Hagel. He is informed that his visitor not only dressed up as Zorro for every Halloween from third grade all the way to his freshman year in college but also credits Johnston McCulley's hero for his ongoing career as an aging épée hack. Hagel's laugh lasts just long enough to be heartfelt, and not so long as to be calculated.
"I always thought he was the best of them," Hagel says.
If Hagel were better fitted for metaphor, Zorro would be an awfully good one, certainly better than that overrated royalist stooge Robin Hood. With his Michael Curtiz pastels and his Merry Men, the former Earl of Locksley fought to restore to the throne Richard I, the bloodthirsty slaughterer of Saracens, who'd left England to corruption and destitution while he went haring off to the Middle East on some damned Crusade. A renegade aristocrat himself, Zorro fought only to free the peons from a tyrannical governor. Zorro wore black. Zorro always rode alone.
But there are no places in Hagel for metaphor. His face is too meaty for poetics, its tectonics shaped by old football injuries and one horrible day in the Mekong Delta when the flesh of it bubbled and burned. His sentences are too often arrhythmic, breaking in the middle, when what he's saying takes an unexpected turn that seems to startle him most of all.
"The president says, 'I don't care.' He's not accountable anymore," Hagel says, measuring his words by the syllable and his syllables almost by the letter. "He's not accountable anymore, which isn't totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment. I don't know. It depends how this goes."
The conversation beaches itself for a moment on that word -- impeachment -- spoken by a conservative Republican from a safe Senate seat in a reddish state. It's barely even whispered among the serious set in Washington, and it rings like a gong in the middle of the sentence, even though it flowed quite naturally out of the conversation he was having about how everybody had abandoned their responsibility to the country, and now there was a war going bad because of it.
"Congress abdicated its oversight responsibility," he says. "The press abdicated its responsibility, and the American people abdicated their responsibilities. Terror was on the minds of everyone, and nobody questioned anything, quite frankly."
He is developing, almost on the fly and without perceptible calculation, a vocabulary and a syntax through which to express the catastrophe of what followed after. Rough, and the furthest thing from glib, he's developing a voice that seems to be coming from somewhere else, distant and immediate all at once.
Listen to him calling out his fellow senators in committee.
"If you wanted a safe job," Hagel said memorably, "go sell shoes."
No pricey Beltway word whore could come up with "Go sell shoes." Not enough poetry. No Churchillian carillon ringing through the image. But the language is changing as the country's calling, because the war's gone bad.
Country's calling now. War's gone bad and nobody's listening, and the country's calling the way it always does, like the moan of a train whistle, soft and distant at first, but with increasing power behind it, the way the trains come through all the small places where Chuck Hagel grew up in Nebraska. All the little towns, where everyone knew if your father was drunk and smashed up the car or lost his job, where every family kept secrets that every other family knew anyway but were too polite or kind to mention. Rushville and York and Ainsworth.
And Columbus, too -- the City of Power and Progress -- founded in 1856 by men of grim visage and considerable chin whiskers, where Bill Cody first worked out the rough parts of his Wild West show before taking it down the line to the bright lights of Omaha. The old man, a veteran of the Pacific war who never quite made it all the way home, died in the little house on Woodland Avenue in Columbus on Christmas Eve 1962. Five years later, his sons went off to war. A train whistle blows in Columbus and it could be calling from four blocks away or 150 years ago. Country's calling from places just like that, louder and louder, demanding in a new, plainer language an end to incompetence and vainglory, creating one of those moments that find the man through which the moment finds its voice.
Go sell shoes.
Slowly, then, too slow, too late, maybe, but with inexorable purpose, the country begins to move.
His face has darkened and his eyes seem to have turned to stone. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has come before the Foreign Relations Committee of a radically different Senate to try and explain, among other things, how sending twenty-one thousand additional United States troops into a meat grinder of a ground war is somehow not an escalation of the conflict. She keeps calling it an "augmentation." She crawfishes on the subject of what will happen if the new strategy somehow sends American troops across the Iranian border. Chuck Hagel is having none of this.
"Some of us," Hagel says, "remember 1970, Madam Secretary, and that was Cambodia, and when our government lied to the American people and said, We didn't cross the border into Cambodia. In fact, we did. I happen to know something about that.
"I have to say, Madam Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam -- if it's carried out.
"I will resist it."
Rice sits there like an ice sculpture. The committee room erupts in applause.
I will resist it.
Hagel speaks only for himself, but he clearly feels the force at his back. The country was divided, but not the way it was divided over Vietnam. That war split families. It got brothers storming away from each other at the dinner table and beating each other bloody on the front lawn. This war is different. It is massively unpopular in the country the way Vietnam never was; in the latest Gallup poll, 74 percent of the people surveyed disapproved of Bush's conduct of the war, and its only fervent supporters seem to be a cadre of Washington think-tankers, a couple of senators, and the president of the United States, and they seem to be the only ones who matter.
"You don't have the draft," Hagel says, "so you don't have that many people touched. This is a more sophisticated political divisiveness. It divides people from their government. 'They don't care what we think, so they're not accountable to us.' That's the kind of thing that's going to widen and deepen." A rock-ribbed Reagan conservative, he's become the voice of uncompromising dissent on this war. "If all these new troops get in there and the casualties start mounting, you're going to see that 74 number go to 80 and higher," he continues. "You can't do anything about the president. He's gone. But you can do something about your congressman. That's why all these Republicans are so nervous."
The Congress of the United States -- the 110th of that name -- is walking on eggshells this morning. It was elected the previous November in large part out of revulsion against a war in Iraq that was built on fraud and that thereafter was prosecuted by an executive branch that seemed to combine the giddy certitude of a sociopath with the geopolitical acumen of the Marx Brothers. A whopping 18 percent of the country believed it to be a good idea to send more American troops there -- and just the night before, the president of the United States had announced that he would do exactly that and that, if need be, he might just have to send some troops into Iran and Syria in order to make his new plan work.
The president had announced this even with the country so revolted by the whole business that it had decided in what was obviously abject desperation that the Democrats might even be a better bet, and it handed over to them both houses of the Congress. At first, there was a lot of talk about "civility" and "bipartisanship." The senators even got together before the opening of the new Congress -- no staff, no press -- in the old Senate chamber in the Capitol building to talk about getting along with one another. It was a rather ill-omened place to talk about bipartisan amity, the chamber in which a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks once caned abolitionist senator Charles Sumner into insensibility. Some issues are irreconcilable. The voters want Congress to function, but they also clearly want somebody's head on a stick.
Which is the reason why the Congress of the United States is walking on eggshells this morning. They're going to have to do something, and Rice is sitting there, the implacable face of an administration that believes its powers in this regard are limitless. Many of these people spent the previous six years enabling those powers, or folding in the face of them. The committee's new chairman is Joe Biden, who inveighs at Rice as though armoring himself in his own ambition, a blowhard who's choked at critical moments almost his entire career. He throws the Constitution at Rice, and she all but hands him a lollipop in return. Hagel sits to Biden's left, glowering and impatient.
Elected in an upset in 1996 over popular Democratic governor Ben Nelson, Hagel was as reliable a Republican as there was in the Senate. He voted for all the tax cuts. He proposed his own plan to monkey around with Social Security. He voted 100 percent of the time with the National Right to Life Committee, and 93 percent of the time with the United States Chamber of Commerce, and 5 percent of the time with the League of Conservation Voters. He wanted to protect the womb-babies and drill for oil in Alaska.
(Even Hagel's upset win over Governor Nelson in 1996 was tinged with what have become de rigueur charges of Republican jiggery-pokery. Prior to the campaign, he had been the chairman of the company that manufactured the machines that counted most of the votes. Nelson subsequently got elected to the other Senate seat from Nebraska anyway. The best anyone can say about their relationship is that their staffs get along well.)
He even voted for the resolution authorizing George Bush to use force in Iraq in 2002, but he did so in a speech shot through with dark ambivalence. He warned against believing in cakewalks. "Imposing democracy through force," he warned, "is a roll of the dice." Then Hagel voted aye.
"I was watching it," says his brother Tom, a law professor at the University of Dayton who's tied to Chuck by blood in every sense of the word. "And it was an excellent speech on all the reasons not to go to war. I thought, Here's a guy who's thought this through, who's clearly agonized over it, and he's set down on paper all the reasons for his ultimate act, which is to vote against it. But then he couldn't pull the trigger."
"There were two reasons I did it," Chuck Hagel explains. "I believed what the administration said, that war would be a last resort, and the second thing is, at a critical time like this, the president needs a strong hand, and to some extent, you've got to trust him, until he lies or screws up or something. Is there a gamble in that? Sure. But there was a gamble in sending Hagel to the Senate." Tom believes that Chuck "has a history of being too loyal for too long to people who don't deserve it." Chuck disagrees. It is not the first time.
However, the way George W. Bush operates always has made Chuck Hagel concerned. He saw close up how the Bush campaign savaged his friend John McCain in the South Carolina primary. In 2000, he said he favored a statewide recount of the disputed presidential ballot in Florida, which was the last thing the Bush people wanted. Then the planes hit the towers and the country got scared and a whole lot of things happened that made Hagel even more concerned. "It was what Churchill called a 'jarring gong,' " Hagel says. "The country got knocked off balance for a long time."
He spoke out against the excesses of the Patriot Act and the cavalier disregard of constitutional guarantees it embodied, becoming one of only four Republican senators to vote against its renewal in 2005. He fumed against what he saw as a country ill served by an indolent press, an impotent Congress, and its own shell-shocked acquiescence.
The Republicans had found an issue they thought they could ride to power for the next fifty years. The Democrats apparently thought so, too, curling up into a ball, whimpering their opposition. Out in the country, the American People -- that fragile flower of an entity that everyone claimed to be working so hard to protect -- seemed to function largely as set decoration. Out of this, inevitably, came the Iraq war.
However, as the evidence piled up that the original casus belli was a complicated farrago of lies, bureaucratic grandiosity, wonkish wet dreams, and wishful thinking, and the bodies piled up -- infantry, most of them, as he and his brother had been -- Hagel engaged in dissent. He called for the American troops to be redeployed, removed from the middle of a running sore of a civil war in which the only thing all sides seemed capable of agreeing upon was that it was a good thing to kill Americans, a burgeoning Belfast with sand. He also found himself an audience. The louder he spoke, the bigger the audience became.
Then the president gave his speech, and Rice came to the Hill to defend it, and Chuck Hagel said what he'd been building up to say for two years and what the country -- the fragile American People -- had been telling pollsters and shouting into the wind for somewhat longer.
I will resist it.
Here's another thing about that committee. A whole clutch of them are now -- or have considered -- running for president in 2008. Biden's in, and so are Barak Obama and Christopher Dodd. Feingold thought about it and, after contemplating how well a twice-divorced Jewish person from Wisconsin would play south of Kenosha, abandoned the idea. And then there's Chuck Hagel, who isn't even sure at this moment whether he'll run for reelection to the Senate but who, in his own dogged, deliberately anticharismatic way, has found a cause with an audience.
The Republican field is wide and eccentric. There is Newt Gingrich, once again running for emperor of his own private universe, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who seems to be bucking to be the national archbishop. Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has good looks and a thin résumé, and he's stuck in the mud because he had to promise to treat gay people like human beings to get elected in Massachusetts, which isn't playing well in Jesusland. Rudy Giuliani has been taking his sweet time.
And there's John McCain, Hagel's great friend, who attached himself hip and thigh to the new policy in Iraq and who, even prior to that, had appeared to be on the verge of becoming a very ridiculous man. But it was after he signed on to the surge that, according to one poll, his support among his core independent voters in New Hampshire tanked from 54 to 27 percent.
And then there's Chuck Hagel, who's not sure of his future but who's positioned at this moment in history to be a presidential candidate of strange historical resonance: a Reaganite version of Eugene McCarthy, who, forty years ago, determined that he would run against a president of his own party in order to stop the misbegotten war in which Tom and Chuck Hagel were at that moment fighting.
"I don't think it's the same thing, because McCarthy was strictly an antiwar candidate," Hagel muses, turning the comparison over and over in his mind. "That wouldn't be what I would be."
Oh, but it's already pushed him there, because the war is going to be the only issue for the next two years, both the hammer and the anvil that pounds out the next president, the one who is going to have to deal with all the wreckage. It is going to redefine American politics for at least the next decade, and that one sentence -- I will resist it -- has marked Hagel as something he might never otherwise have become: the vehicle through which the country found a voice for its anger and discontent. A true maverick.
I will resist it.
The voice of a country, moving.
The Real McCain.
The senator's father, Charles Dean Hagel, went off to war, a tail gunner in the Pacific theater. Not long ago, some of Chuck Hagel's cousins discovered a cache of his father's wartime letters. They describe hilarious leaves in Australia and a girlfriend his family never knew he had. They also talk a lot about how much he was looking forward to having a drink or three when he got home. In a very real sense, Charlie Hagel never made it home.
"If you look at the symptoms my father had," says Tom Hagel, "I don't think there's any question that he had what we came to call post-traumatic-stress syndrome. So many of them came home, and booze was what they had. I mean, there wasn't cocaine around then."
He married Betty Dunn in 1946, and they had four sons, but Charlie Hagel couldn't shake the booze any more than he could shake the malaria he'd picked up on one island or another. He caught polio. He kept having accidents at work. He broke his back once when he piled up his car after a bender.
The family moved seven times in a great loop around Nebraska. On one occasion, they lived in the furnace room of a hotel. Chuck remembers this as a time of opportunity. "Looking back on it now," he says, "it was a tremendous advantage. We all had to make new sets of friends all the time. I hated it at the time, but it was a liberating experience."
It was the way he always was -- a grinder, a smart and diligent oldest son who set his jaw and moved ahead, a solid fullback on the several football teams on which he played. Tom was different. He was mercurial, quicker. He cut class to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica, cover to cover.
You knew instantly how Tom felt about something. You had to pry it out of Chuck. He was the one who had to step between his parents when Charlie's drinking set him after his wife, but it was Tom who felt most deeply what that meant in these little towns where every family had secrets that everybody else in town knew. But they were two sides of the same personality. Put them in a room with two hundred strangers and you'd pick them out as brothers.
No matter where the Hagels lived, in all the small towns, the center of Charlie's life was the American Legion post. "The Legion hall was the center of the universe," Chuck recalls. "They had bake sales, wedding receptions. It would be where your mother and father would get dressed up and go to dance, where they'd have Guy Lombardo's third team in there." It also functioned as the local bar.
In 1960, they moved to Columbus, where Charlie got a job in sales with the Gerhold Concrete Products company. They moved into a ranch house on Woodland Drive, a small development off Nebraska Route 30 on the eastern side of town. They'd lived there for two years when, on Christmas Eve, Charlie said goodnight and went to bed. The aneurysm hit in the middle of the night. He was thirty-nine years old. They gave him a full military funeral out at St. Bonaventure's cemetery.
"We found him dead in his bed," Chuck recalls, measuring every word. "I'd like to think we reacted like any family would. I recall my mother, right after they removed my father's body, saying, 'You're all going to have to help me.' "
(After Jimmy Hagel, her youngest son, was killed in a car wreck, Betty Hagel spiraled into depression and alcoholism. Redeeming the promise they'd all made to her earlier, Tom Hagel organized the surviving brothers into an intervention and had their mother hospitalized. "When she came home," Tom recalls, "she went through the house and pulled out all the little bottles she'd hidden away and poured them down the sink.")
In 1967, Chuck was at loose ends. Stops at two colleges hadn't taken, largely because a pinched nerve in his neck had ended his football career. He'd sold encyclopedias door-to-door. He'd enrolled in a broadcasting school in Minnesota and even worked briefly at a radio station back in Lincoln. When his draft notice came, there was never a question about his serving, not after all the time he'd spent with his father and the guys down at the Legion hall. They called and you went and then you came back and drank beer and shot the shit about all the good times.
He went through basic training and he showed some aptitude for something called a Redeye gun, a shoulder-fired gizmo that was a precursor to the modern Stinger missile. It was a top-secret weapon system, and the Army wanted to transfer him to Germany for further training. He asked instead for a transfer to Vietnam and the infantry. By this time, Tom had been drafted, too, and the Army originally tried to make him a cook.
"We were about the smartest kids in basic training in El Paso, Texas, because we were probably the only two that had high school degrees and wore shoes before we were out of high school," Chuck recalls. "And we had no criminal record, and that didn't mean anything, either."
They would never serve together. The Army promised that. Forty years later, going through Charlie Hagel's letters, his sons came upon one that stopped them both short.
"If I thought I would ever have a son who would have to go through this," he'd written to his sister, "I would never get married."
Senator Hagel is out of patience.
This morning, he happens to be out of patience with Senator Joseph Lieberman, the putative Democratic senator from Connecticut and one of the president's very few supporters on his latest plans for Iraq. They are on a Sunday chat show together, and Lieberman is droning on and on about the historic moment we all face, and every word he says seems transparent. You can see in them a treacly syrup turning slowly to blood. Finally, Lieberman says he's supporting this war for his grandchildren.
"We all have children and grandchildren," says Hagel. "He doesn't have a market on that."
He's out of patience with the young cheerleaders of this war, the chickenhawks at places like The Weekly Standard who once called him part of an "axis of appeasement." He is out of patience with think-tank cowboys and talk-show Napoleons. "I'm always taken aback by that certain cavalier manner, not connecting at all with that human loss," he says. "I do think of those guys, kicking doors down, walking target practice for snipers.
"Nobody lobbies for the guy on the ground. To too many people in this business, committing men and women to war, and many of them to their deaths, is an abstraction."
This impatience is what caused him to step in, loudly, in 2002, when a Georgia Republican Senate challenger named Saxby Chambliss -- who'd sat out Vietnam with a knee problem -- ran an odious television commercial in which Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were linked to Democratic incumbent Max Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran. Hagel called Senator Bill Frist, the chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and chewed Frist's ass like it was steak. Take the ad down today, Hagel told him, or I'm going to Georgia and cut a commercial endorsing Max. "I told Max's guys to start writing it," Hagel recalls. The ad came down.
He'd seen this kind of thing before, in South Carolina, in 2000, when the Bush people submarined his friend John McCain. They ran whispering campaigns that a Bangladeshi child the McCains had adopted was the senator's love child with a black woman. Hagel was appalled. "These are people with no courage, on both sides," he says. "Cowards. Nameless and faceless. I called it the filthiest thing I'd ever seen."
Now, though, it is 2007 and McCain wants to be president again. To that end, he has embraced -- literally -- the president on whose behalf his wife and daughter were publicly slandered. He has sought the support of those Christian Right leaders he'd memorably denounced seven years earlier. He has hired the admen who created the Swift Boat spots against John Kerry, which in 2004 he called "dishonest and dishonorable." He has gone back on so much of his vaunted "Straight Talk" that McCain has become a parody of himself. And of course, there is the war. McCain is the new policy's biggest supporter, even bigger than Lieberman is, which is saying something. How much of that, one wonders, was political calculation?
"I don't know if he's even being honest about it," says Tom Hagel. "He would kiss anybody's ass and say anything to whatever group if he figures it'll help him become president. He has given himself up to his ambition, and I wanted to vomit knowing what the Bush people did to him in South Carolina and watching him in 2004."
Is that the price you have to pay to be president now, to be granted the privilege of trying to figure a way out of the blood and death and misadventure? Asked about it, and about what his friend has done in pursuit of that office, Chuck Hagel takes a long time to answer.
"I cannot, and will not, ever speak for other people," he says finally. Tom thinks Chuck has a problem with loyalty to the wrong people. Chuck does not agree. It's not the first time.
To this day, they don't know how it happened. Tom was with the 5th Cavalry Regiment up north, in the area around the DMZ, and Chuck was working the Mekong Delta with the 9th Division. In Vietnam, the units were fluid. It didn't matter what the patch on your arm said. If someone needed bodies, you got sent there. It was another thing the Army didn't tell you when you signed up.
In February 1968, Tom put in for a transfer south in order to be somewhere near his brother. At almost the same time, Chuck got word that he was being sent north, to the highlands, where the 4th Division had taken some major hits. "I laughed to myself," Chuck Hagel says. "It'll be incredible if Tom gets transferred down here and I'm gone."
They put him on a truck to go north, and for reasons about which he is still completely in the dark, Chuck Hagel got pulled off the truck and sent back to his unit. At the time, he was afraid something had happened to Tom. Five days later, he wandered into the orderly room and Tom was standing there with his duffel bag. "Never, ever, have I had any idea to this day why they pulled me off the truck," Chuck says. They were put in the same unit, which was something else the Army said would never happen. Chuck was a steady, earnest trooper, and Tom became something of a character, dropping the words he'd learned from the Great Books into casual conversation and cracking everyone up.
It was grinding, brutal work in the Delta, hard by the Cambodian border and, occasionally, unofficially, across it. There were mines and booby traps, grenades hanging like fruit in the trees. They would see the Swift-boat guys go zipping up the rivers and canals, where the enemy would hang piano wire across the narrowest parts. Jesus, the grunts thought, that's some shit duty right there.
On March 28, while they were walking in column through the jungle, someone ahead of them tripped a mine that had been hung from a tree -- what today's grunts call an IED. Tom was fording a small creek when he was knocked down by a blast carrying pieces of the men who'd been in line ahead of him. He looked around for Chuck and found him, bleeding profusely from a chest wound. Tom got the bleeding stopped before he noticed that he'd been hit in the arm. They both stayed on patrol. Almost a month later, they were riding together in an armored vehicle when someone in a village they'd just passed set off a mine. Chuck's eardrum punctured and the left side of his face burned, the flesh bubbling. Tom was unconscious. Chuck yanked him free of the wreckage and then shielded him with his own body when the machine gunners in the village opened up on them.
How do you go on from that? How do you live as brothers with those moments, surreal and desperate, hanging between you back in the world? "You have to have a life separate from it. Because it was a cloud over us for far too long," Tom says, his voice quavering. Chuck's stays firm and he says, "It's always there, but you move forward."
By the following March, they were both back in Omaha with five Purple Hearts between them. Tom had a hard time. He drank and flew into rages. He was openly furious at the government for lying them into a war. Chuck thought the war was a good idea badly executed. This was enough to send them at each other.
"My mother," says Mike Hagel, their younger brother, "would send them away from the table." Once, at a party at a small house Chuck rented, they had their picture taken in a state of blissfully intoxicated brotherhood only to find themselves a little while later punching themselves senseless on the lawn. They bonded again only when the police came. "We told them nothing was going on," Tom recalls. "But we wrecked that house." The one thing they did agree on was that Mike wasn't going to join the Army.
"I tried to enlist three times," Mike says. "They stopped me all three."
Chuck did what he always did, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other. He worked for a Republican congressman in Washington. He came back with enough connections in Nebraska to make a lot of money getting in on the ground floor of the wireless-communications industry. He married, divorced, and remarried, this time to Lilibet Ziller of Meridian, Mississippi, a congressional aide whom he'd met while working in Washington. He was prairie Catholic. She was Southern Baptist. As a compromise, they and their two teenage children, Allyn and Ziller, go to an Episcopal church. He ran for the Senate as a rookie and won, beating a popular Republican attorney general in the primary and incumbent governor Ben Nelson in the general election.
Tom got a law degree and moved to Dayton in 1982. His politics stayed left. Once, he was romanced by the law school at the University of Mississippi. He was charmed by the antebellum campus in Oxford. Then, at a reception that night, he heard some of his prospective colleagues talking about "nigras." He stayed in Dayton.
The two brothers gradually made a hard-won peace with their war. They became somewhat famous when Myra MacPherson made them the centerpiece of the opening of Long Time Passing, her seminal 1984 study of Vietnam veterans. In 1999, they were invited to be part of the delegation attending the opening of the first American consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Gradually, though, Chuck moved closer to Tom's view of Vietnam. It was the tapes that did it, the release of recordings of Lyndon Johnson's anguished phone calls to Richard Russell in which he tells Russell that he knows the war cannot be won. The calls were recorded two years before the Hagels went to Vietnam.
"To know that, and to continue to send kids into that meat grinder..." says Chuck Hagel, sitting in an office in a building named after Richard Russell, an office across the hall from the one out of which Lyndon Johnson once ran the Senate. It seems impolite to ask him, as his sentence fades away and he shakes the voices of Johnson and Russell out of his head, whether we are still talking completely about the past.
Today, Tom jokes that we'll all know whether Chuck's running for president if Tom is suddenly packed off to a desert island somewhere for the duration of the campaign. For his part, Chuck points out that Tom, who, he says, once railed against veterans' groups, is a post commander of the Disabled American Veterans. "When he came back," Chuck says, "he wouldn't walk across the street for those guys. 'They're a bunch of no-good, beer-swilling, fat-bellied swine.' Now he's part of the establishment."
They tear up at different times. Tom starts talking about the day Chuck pulled him out of the wrecked vehicle, and he has to turn away for a second and pick up a cup of coffee, and even that doesn't help altogether. It happens to Chuck when he talks about their father, who never came all the way home.
He's sitting in the Senate Caucus Room in the Russell Building. All the lights are off, and the city's gone dark, and the only illumination comes from some small lamps that a photographer is using to take his picture. There are shades moving amid the shadows in this room. It was here where Harry Truman, a mediocre machine hack from Missouri, roasted his own party over war profiteering, and where J. William Fulbright, an urbane Arkansan, roasted his own party over the lies it had used to launch a war, and where Sam Ervin, an unremarkable segregationist, used the Constitution to pry the lid off the excesses of a rogue presidency. It was in this room where, often, the building moments met the unlikely men who gave them their voice.
Chuck Hagel talks about the night his father died. In the dark, you can barely see his fingers move discreetly under his eyes, wiping away the tears. You can see the pain and loss there, beneath the scars and the bone and everything else that's been built on top of it, the essential archaeology of a man and his time. Any war's wounds are vast and gratuitous. None of its damage is ever collateral.