During confirmation hearings Thursday, the Arizona senator tore into his his "old friend" Chuck Hagel in a ritual display of D.C. hypocrisy.
In the real world, when somebody calls you an old friend, it matters. You can take them at their word. In Washington, ground zero for hypocrisy and posturing, "friend" is a 4-letter word. "Old friend" is double trouble.
"I'm pleased to see an old friend in front of the committee," Senator John McCain said Thursday in welcoming Secretary of Defense-designee Chuck Hagel to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel is reviewing Hagel's qualifications to succeed Leon Panetta.
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"Our concerns," McCain continued, speaking for Hagel's other GOP critics, "pertain to the quality of your professional judgment."
Just four years ago, McCain and Hagel were personally and politically close, bound by their service in Vietnam and their well-polished maverick GOP brands. McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, said that year he would be honored to put Hagel in his Cabinet. He even embraced a rumor that then-Senator Barack Obama might pick Hagel as a running mate.
Times have changed McCain from a party-bucking, bipartisan-minded senator to a hard-line conservative and hawk. Hagel has evolved less, if at all. The men drifted apart over foreign policy, associates say. They point to the fact that McCain, famously opinionated and stubborn, has especially little patience for people he believes waver on war.
The Shakespearian encounter between McCain and Hagel is emblematic of Washington, where shallow friendships, intense polarization, and rampant hypocrisy flourish. It was all on display Thursday as Hagel dodged and stumbled over attempts by Republicans to hold him accountable for past statements on Iraq, Israel, Syria, and other trouble spots. McCain is angry that Hagel opposed the "surge" of forces in Iraq under President Bush. McCain wanted his old pal to admit he was wrong about Iraq and suggested that Hagel's acquiescence was his price for an affirmative vote on confirmation.
Hagel wasn't buying it. "I'll defer that answer to history," he replied when McCain asked whether he stood by his anti-surge comments.
McCain demanded: Were you right or wrong about the surge? "Yes or no?" he snapped. "My reference ..." Hagel said before being interrupted by McCain.
"Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel?"
"I'm not going to give you a yes or no answer," Hagel replied. He attempted to explain that his comments were in opposition to the entire effort in Iraq, an unpopular war Hagel called a "war of choice."
McCain harrumphed. "You were on the wrong side of history," he told his dear old pal.
Hagel is likely to be confirmed, but neither the former senator nor his critics fared well Thursday. The hearing opened with predictable posturing by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who carried Obama's water, and James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican leading the opposition.
Calling Hagel a friend, Levin outlined a series of "troubling statements" the former Nebraska senator made opposing sanctions against Iran, supporting unconditional talks with Tehran, criticizing the pro-Israel lobbying apparatus, and opposing efforts to isolate Hamas as a terrorist organization.
And then, rather than holding Hagel accountable for his past statements and record, Levin explained why he will vote to confirm the nominee. "The president needs to have a secretary of Defense in whom he can trust."
Calling Hagel "a good man," Inhofe said he would vote against his former colleague because his record "is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream." He accused Hagel of appeasing U.S. enemies and knocking its allies, namely Israel.
In response, Hagel thanked his good friends and quickly walked away from his past. "I'm on the record on many issues," he said. "But not one individual vote, not one quote ... defines me."
Hagel and his pals have that in common -- they are not defined by a single thing. Unlike friends in the real world, you can't take these folks at their word.