Chuck Hagel: The hero who wasn’t

By Brian Pierce

Peggy Noonan, a writer who is so good it is actually infuriating, unleashed another flash flood of eloquence this past week in her Wall Street Journal column celebrating the alleged courage of Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Noonan is not the first to sing Hagel’s praises. Nor will she be the last, not after his blistering polemic last Wednesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting against Congress’s offensive negligence in addressing the Bush administration’s mishandling of the war in Iraq.

Noonan, along with the rest of the mainstream media, swooned. “He was barreling, he was giving it to you straight, and he’d pick up the pieces later,” she wrote. “Mr. Hagel said the most serious thing that has been said in Congress in a long time.”

It was an impressive speech to be sure, seemingly unrehearsed and seething with emotion. Referring to a Senate resolution opposing President Bush’s “surge” of troops in Iraq, Hagel declared, “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.”

Damn straight. And while I’ll be first in line arguing that Senator Hagel is right about this, I’ll stand alone shouting that he does not at all deserve the credit being heaped upon him for being courageous.

It’s unfortunate that my writing this will be seen as an insult to Mr. Hagel. That is not my intention. I find little fault in Hagel’s behavior and his speech before the Foreign Relations Committee was right on the money (though the resolution he was supporting is nonbinding, which does not strike me as bravery or, for that matter, meaningful action).

But there is a great danger in the media’s pattern of crowning certain people as heroes for doing things that are not at all politically risky. We saw this in spades with Arizona Senator John McCain, a man who has been labeled a “maverick” and a straight shooter for years for supporting causes that already enjoyed enormous public support, be it campaign finance reform or opposition to torture. Only now, as McCain cuddles up next to the religious right, have the media begun to see his political calculation for what it is: a series of maneuvers to win the presidency.

Hagel’s “courage” may or may not be based on ambitions for higher office, though it certainly looks like it is. But again, the problem isn’t Hagel’s behavior, nor is it his ambition. The problem is that the media betray their goal of pursuing the truth when they celebrate political leaders who engage in behavior that could easily be cynical opportunism.

If the media wanted to spotlight political courage, they would steer their gaze to Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold (whom I love) or Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (whom I loathe). The first sacrificed his presidential ambitions to oppose the PATRIOT Act, oppose the war in Iraq, call for the President’s censure and a slew of other principled, far-left stances. The second lost his party’s nomination for re-election to the Senate thanks to his absurd hawkishness.

Hagel, to his credit, was among the first to criticize President Bush’s handling of Iraq. But that criticism, quiet at first and steadily increasing in volume, did nothing but help his chances of political success, both in his home state and nationwide. An act of courage would have been to challenge President Bush in the primary in 2004, or to support John Kerry. He at least could have given the kind of blistering speech he gave last week in 2004, when President Bush had to defend his actions to voters.

By criticisizing without risking anything, Hagel has only benefited. But the real credit for political courage belongs to those who have been hurt by taking a principled stand.