Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sole Booklength Biography of SecDef Nominee Chuck Hagel Leaves Much to Be Desired

Today's confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee to review President Obama's nomination of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the new Secretary of Defense is drawing plenty of attention from the press and public alike.

Outside of Nebraska and rarefied policy-wonk circles, most Americans are not familiar with Hagel or his career. Consequently, they are looking for information about him so that they can make up their own minds about his qualifications to be the successor to Leon Panetta.

Some will turn to their local libraries or book shops to find a biography of Hagel. They will find there is just one available: Charlyne Berens' 2006 book, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward (University of Nebraska Press), scheduled to be published by Bison Books in paperback this year on July 1 (a publication date that may, given the current circumstances, be moved up).

Berens, described on the book's jacket flap as a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wrote this fawning, uncritical biography of her state's then-senior senator during a period in which Hagel was being widely discussed as a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2008. Ultimately, Hagel decided against a run – the nomination went instead to his fellow Vietnam veteran, John McCain – but Berens' book is little more than a brief for supporters of a draft-Hagel movement.

Comic relief
Sadly, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward, despite being brisk and breezy, reads like a book-length answer to a job interviewer's question: “What would you say are your shortcomings?”, with the reply being, “I work too hard and give too much money to charity.”

Relying on interviews with Hagel's family members, friends, and political colleagues, there is not an unkind word said about him – and even the few (slightly) negative comments are spun positively.

Berens is the kind of biographer who seeks out early mentors of her subject who are prone to say things like, what he lacked in raw talent he made up in scrappiness.

That is not a direct quotation, but this (p. 18) is:
Hagel played football and basketball and went out for track. He was on student council and in the honor society as well as in Sodality, a Catholic young people's organization. "He was a kid you never could keep busy because he was so busy," his football coach Dean Soulliere, now retired, said.
And this, from the next page:
Anything he lacked in athletic ability he made up in effort. For instance, [younger brother] Tom Hagel said Chuck really didn't have a lot of talent in basketball, but he wanted to play so badly that he just drove himself until he made the team. "He was kind of the comic relief in some games,' Tom recalls, 'moderately good, at best, but just entirely focused on it."

Slapdash hagiography
It is hard to begrudge Hagel's success in the armed services (a decorated infantryman, with two Purple Hearts to his credit), business (he built up a multimillion-dollar fortune by investing his life savings in the nascent cell phone industry), philanthropy (he rescued the USO from near bankruptcy in the 1980s), and politics (he defeated a popular sitting governor in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, having never run for office before). But Berens writes about Hagel as if he were an angel. This is a Hagel hagiography entirely lacking academic detachment.

The book is also a slapdash effort that should embarrass both the academic press that published it and the professor who wrote it.

For instance, in discussing Hagel's first first major assignment in the U.S. Army, Berens writes on page 28:
So he was sent to Fort Ord, California, and the White Sands Missile Range. He was nearly twenty-one years old, and it was the first time he had seen the ocean. It was only the second time he'd been out of Nebraska; the first time was for basic training at Fort Bliss.

Yet just a few pages earlier, Berens quotes Hagel as saying that, as a teenager, “I spent way too much time with my buddies, driving up to Yankton, South Dakota,” to meet coeds and drink in a state with a lower drinking age than Nebraska's (p. 23). And two paragraphs later on the same page, Berens reports that Hagel had spent a year in Minneapolis, Minnesota, attending the Brown Institute of Radio and Television, where he also worked several jobs – all this before he began his military service.

Then, much deeper into the book, in a discussion of environmental policy and legislation, Berens explains that the Kyoto Protocol (on climate change) “would have required industrial plants – but not automobile manufacturers – to cut pollution from burning fossil fuels to 2000 levels by 2010” (p. 104). Two pages later, Berens describes a bill that Hagel opposed as one that “would have required U.S. industrial plants – but not auto manufacturers – to cut pollution from burning fossil fuels to 2000 levels by 2010.” The only difference is “automobile” becomes “auto.”

This is amateurish stuff, but Berens worst sin, in terms of academic rigor, may be the way she sources her quotations and paraphrases. Her end notes are all in this form: “Omaha World-Herald, August 16, 1999” or “Washington Post, November 15, 2004” – no page numbers, no article titles, no author bylines. If a high-school student turned in a term paper with that kind of format, he would barely get a passing grade. For a college professor to do it in a book published by a university press is simply horrifying.

All those criticisms aside, there are some interesting tidbits found within the text.

Who knew, for instance, that in the early 1990s, before he returned to Nebraska after two decades as a Washington insider, Republican activists tried to recruit Hagel to run for governor of Virginia? He was, Berens reports, “mildly interested but never pursued the option” (p. 72).

It is also largely forgotten that Hagel was talked about as a potential vice-presidential candidate for George W. Bush as early as 1999, and also as a possible running mate (crossing party lines) for John Kerry in 2004.

With a certain prescient irony, Berens recounts that it would be “safe to say Hagel never seriously considered pursuing a spot on the ticket with Kerry. But the suggestions he might serve in a Kerry cabinet were a different matter. 'I'd see that in a different light,' Hagel said in May 2004.”

Continuing, she writes,
Of course, he added, if he, a Republican, were to serve s a member of a Democratic president's cabinet, that would eliminate any possibility he could ever run for president himself. "I'd have to think about that," Hagel said. "Would it be worth it to give up that option" to serve as secretary of state or defense in a Kerry cabinet? Only if he were convinced the position would allow him to make a real difference, he said. As things turned out, the question was moot.
As things turned out, it was only temporarily moot.

Hagel chose not to run for re-election in 2008, fulfilling a promise he had made to voters in 1996 that he would serve just two terms. He went on to become chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States, in keeping with his lifelong interest in international affairs. And on January 7, 2013, Republican war veteran Chuck Hagel was nominated for Secretary of Defense by a Democratic president.

Will this foreclose future plans for the now-66-year-old Hagel to run for President himself? That remains to be seen but one can only hope that, if that day comes, a better, more analytical biography of him by a less sycophantic author will have been published.  For now, Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward is not that book.

(This book review appeared, in slightly different form, on
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