As unexpected as the news was Monday that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was resigning, what is even more stunning is that Hagel — one of two Republicans to have served in Democrat President Obama's Cabinet — would serve such a short time and would have such an abrupt departure.
Decorated Vietnam veteran, former Reagan administration official Hagel, 68, served less than two years at the helm of the Pentagon. Senior administration officials, according to The New York Times' Helene Cooper, "described Mr. Obama's decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ."
"History will record that Chuck had to fight significant internal battles that we are not publicly privy to at this time," former U.S. Court of Claims Judge John Napier, who has known Hagel since they both worked as staffers on Capitol Hill in the 1970's, told Newsmax. "I believe the historical record will show that Chuck wanted to move much more aggressively to destroy ISIS ... wanted to move more forcefully on other issues than some in the national security apparatus currently want to move."
Whatever the true story, the president reportedly decided to ask for Hagel's resignation last Friday. The awkwardness between the two one-time Senate colleagues was apparent, several White House correspondents agreed, by the hug Obama gave Hagel at the Rose Garden ceremony announcing his departure. Many likened it to the not-so-warm hug the president gave Jay Carney when he resigned as White House press secretary.
For the "trophy" Republican in the Democrat administration, such treatment was unprecedented.
Cabinet members from a party opposite the president's are a prize "catch" on the rare occasions. In almost every case going back to World War II in which a Republican serves in a Democrat president's Cabinet and vice versa, the Cabinet secretary has a close relationship with the president, is given a high profile in the administration, and often pays a high price in terms of friendship within the party in which he is registered.
The two Republicans Franklin Roosevelt recruited for his first Cabinet in 1933 quickly became consequential players in his presidency and remained so until his death in 1945. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace were vilified as traitors by Republicans. (Upon being picked as FDR's vice presidential running mate in 1940, lifelong Republican Wallace changed his registration to Democrat).
During World War II, FDR entrusted running the war effort to two Cabinet members with Republican backgrounds as solid as Hagel's: Secretary of War Henry Stimson (who was secretary of state under Roosevelt's GOP predecessor Herbert Hoover) and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1936.
Wall Street financier and Republican C. Douglas Dillon served as secretary of the treasury under Democrat Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Former GOP Sen. William Cohen (Maine) held the Pentagon portfolio throughout Bill Clinton's second term and former GOP Rep. Ray LaHood (Illinois) had a cordial relationship with fellow Illinoisan Obama and remained secretary of transportation throughout his first term.
One of the few Republican senators to back John McCain for their party's presidential nomination over George W. Bush in 2000, Hagel began moving away from Vietnam comrade-in-arms McCain as they disagreed over the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Encountering Hagel and wife Lilibet at Washington's Reagan National Airport in 2008, this reporter asked the Nebraskan if he had made up with McCain and was supporting him for president.
"Chuck Hagel's not there yet," he replied, a day before the press reported that Lilibet Hagel had written a large check to the campaign of Democrat Obama.
Like former Democrat Gov. John Connally of Texas when he was named secretary of the treasury by Richard Nixon in 1971, Hagel's nomination by Barack Obama to succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary in 2012 was greeted with catcalls and fist-shaking among his own party. In confirmation hearings, Hagel was slammed as "the senator from Hamas" and even anti-semitic for criticism he made of Israel during his Senate years.
Hagel even became an issue in a Republican primary this year, with Mississippi State Sen. Chris McDaniel denouncing GOP Sen. Thad Cochran for his vote to confirm Hagel and, in McDaniel's words, "for sending a very bad message to Israel, America's only trusted ally in the Middle East." Cochran narrowly defeated McDaniel. Hagel went on to win Senate confirmation by an uncomfortably close vote of 58 to 41.
Whatever the true story behind the nearly-unprecedented exit of Chuck Hagel from the Obama administration, about the safest bets one could make is we'll learn more when his tell-all book comes out — and there are few on the Washingtonian who doubt it will be coming while Obama is still in the White House.
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