Chuck Hagel at the VA

By James Fallows

HagelViet.jpegI mentioned earlier that I hadn't studied the details of Chuck Hagel's legislative and political career. Jan C. Scruggs, of Vietnam Veterans, has posted a fascinating account of choices and decisions Hagel made in the Reagan years of the early 1980s, when he was the second-ranking official at the Veterans Administration. That is Hagel at the right, then in his mid-30s, in a photo from that era accompanying Scruggs's post. Below is Hagel a few years earlier.


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Read Scruggs's account for yourself, but the gist is that Hagel was caught in the controversy over Maya Lin's design for the polished, black, name-etched wall that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Three decades later, when The Wall is recognized as an artistic and commemorative masterpiece, it is hard to believe or remember, but: Some groups were bitterly opposed to Maya Lin's design. They considered it humiliating and disrespectful. Ross Perot was a prominent backer of this anti-wall group; my friend Jim Webb, now nearing the end of his term in the Senate, was (mistakenly, in my view) outspoken on this side as well. 

Scruggs was one of the leaders of the effort to build the wall -- as was Jack Wheeler, the West Point graduate who was tragically and mysteriously murdered in Delaware nearly two years ago. Hagel was in the middle of the controversy. Scruggs describes what he did:
He was told [by political influential opponents] that he should join the team opposing Lin's design. If he did not join the opposition, he would be out of work. Friends at the White House would see to it that he would be fired. Most people would have caved. Hagel did not.

There are a few examples of stunning courage in Washington. Most are unheralded, this was one. Hagel said, "I serve at the pleasure of the President. If he fires me for supporting a design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, so be it." 

Hagel never got fired. The opponents left, probably dazed at the outcome. Hagel went on to serve President Reagan in other capacities throughout the Presidency, and eventually, Nancy Reagan joined the National Sponsoring Committee for The Wall. A compromise was reached with the opposition, and in March 1982 we hosted an emotional groundbreaking. Hagel was a speaker.

This is not logically connected to the current effort to derail Hagel because of his "Jewish problem," but to me it's an interesting additional part of his portrait. I agree with Peter Beinart's argument that it's important not just for Hagel but for the Obama Administration as a whole that the president not give in to this kind of smear attack:

Throw one high-profile foreign policy nominee to the wolves and you look ruthlessly pragmatic. Throw two in the space of a few weeks and you look like an administration that can be rolled. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/chuck-hagel-at-the-va/266545/