We all complain, and with justice, about the falseness of much that is said in Washington, and the cowardice that leaves a great deal unsaid. But I found myself impressed and grateful for the words of Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Because his message was not one Republicans or Democrats would find congenial, it may be accidentally dropped down the memory hole, so I’ll quote at some length.
The committee was nearing a vote on what was, essentially, an announcement of no confidence in the administration’s leadership in Iraq. Specifically it was a nonbinding resolution opposing the increase in troops the president has requested. This was not significant in a concrete way: The president has the power to send more troops, and they are already arriving. But as symbols go, it packed a punch. You couldn’t watch it on television or on the Internet and not see that Mr. Hagel was letting it rip. He did not speak from notes or a text but while looking at his fellow senators. There seemed no time lag between thought and word. He was barreling, he was giving it to you straight, and he’d pick up the pieces later.
This is what he said: Congress has duties; in the case of the war, meeting those duties was not convenient; Congress did not meet them.
And so: “The Congress has stood in the shadow of this issue, Iraq, for four years. As [John] Warner noted . . . we have a constitutional responsibility as well as a moral responsibility to this country, to the young men and women we ask to go fight and die and their families. . . . This is not a defeatist resolution, this is not a cut-and-run resolution, we’re not talking about cutting off funds, not supporting the troops. This is a very real, responsible addressing of the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam.
“Sure it’s tough. Absolutely. And I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line on this. What do you believe? What are you willing to support? What do you think? Why are you elected? If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.
“This is a tough business. But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves . . . than what we’re asking our young men and women to do? I don’t think so.”
Later: “I don’t question the president’s sincerity, his motivations in this. I never have. . . . Part of the problem that we have, I think, is because we didn’t—we didn’t involve the Congress in this when we should have. And I’m to blame. Every senator who’s been here the last four years has to take some responsibility for that.
“But I will not sit here in this Congress of the United States at this important time for our country and in the world and not have something to say about this. . . . I don’t ever want to look back and have the regret that I didn’t have the courage and I didn’t do what I could. . . .
“I would go back to where I began, and pick up on a point that Chairman [Richard] Lugar mentioned: coherence of strategy. I don’t know how many United States senators believe we have a coherent strategy in Iraq. I don’t think we’ve ever had a coherent strategy. In fact, I would even challenge the administration today to show us the plan that the president talked about the other night. There is no plan. I happen to know Pentagon planners were on their way to the Central Com over the weekend. They haven’t even Team B’d this plan. . . . And I want every one of you, every one of us, 100 senators, to look in that camera, and you tell your people back home what you think. Don’t hide anymore; none of us.
“That is the essence of our responsibility. And if we’re not willing to do it, we’re not worthy to be seated right here. We fail our country. If we don’t debate this . . . we are not worthy of our country.”
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Whenever the camera shot broadened to show the other senators, I wondered what they were thinking. For a few it might have been, Well done, Chuck. For others, Hey, righteous indignation is my act. And some would have been thinking, That’s good, ol’ buddy, and no matter how long I have to wait, I’ll get you for putting me on the spot, for making us look bad, for getting on your high horse and charging.
But Mr. Hagel said the most serious thing that has been said in Congress in a long time. This is what we’re here for. This is why we’re here, to decide, to think it through and take a stand, and if we can’t do that, why don’t we just leave and give someone else a chance?
Mr. Hagel has shown courage for a long time. He voted for the war resolution in 2002 but soon after began to question how it was being waged. This was before everyone did. He also stood against the war when that was a lonely place to be. Senate Democrats sat back and watched: If the war worked, they’d change the subject; and if it didn’t, they’d hang it on President Bush. Republicans did their version of inaction; they supported the president until he was unpopular, and then peeled off. This is almost not to be criticized. It’s what politicians do. But it’s not what Mr. Hagel did. He had guts.
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A note too on John Kerry, who, on the floor of the Senate, also talked about Iraq this week, and said he would not run for president. Clearly he saw the lipstick writing on the wall: This is the year of the woman. He also might have been acting on the sense that this is a time of ongoing and incipient political flux. The major parties seem as played out as they are ruthless, and the arc of political fame is truncated: nobodies become somebodies become has-beens before half the country knows their name. The Democrats have no idea what they stand for, the Republicans only remember what they stood for.
But there was Mr. Kerry, liberated by the death of a dream and for once quite human as he tried to tell it the way he actually saw it. Took the mock right out of me. Good for him, and for Mr. Hagel. I wonder if we are seeing the start of a new seriousness.