Hagel, Israel, and What Americans Want from Politicians

January 14, 2013

Chuck Hagel, who will be nominated as the next Secretary of Defense, is exactly what Americans say they want in a politician. He is willing to cross party lines when he thinks his side is wrong, he speaks his mind with little apparent regard for the political consequences, and had a “real” life beyond politics. All those qualities are probably why the voters of Nebraska sent him to the Senate twice, re-electing him with over 80% of the vote. But those are also the traits that are hurting his chances at confirmation.

Part of the fight over this nomination is about policy, which is entirely good and proper.  Some Republicans are worried that he’s too “soft” on Iran and too tough on Israel. The decisions about war with Iran and how to deal with Israel will not be his – the President will make those decisions, and Hagel will be only one voice advising him* -- but they are legitimate areas of inquiry for senators. It’s also reasonable for them to ask if any of his past comments, on Israel for instance, suggest some prejudice on his part.

But what should be out-of-bounds is maligning his character because he said something factually correct using imperfect words. When someone is attacked for saying what is obviously true, for instance that the pro-Israel organization AIPAC is influential in Congress, the only result is that politicians retreat further into over-careful, meaningless phrasing. The pretend offensive in this case is that Hagel once referred to AIPAC and its allies as a “Jewish lobby,” rather than a pro-Israel one. And if there was anything else in his history to suggest anti-Semitism, it would worry me – both as an American and a Jew. But I can also assure you that if someone else said the “Israel lobby” was too strong, and had the stink of anti-Semitism in their past, we would all know exactly what those code words meant. Slick racists like David Duke are always careful to say they are standing up for “European-Americans,” for instance, avoiding the plain English wording of their hateful ideologies.

Hagel was uncareful in his word choice, just as all of us less famous people are every day.  We say things to friends and colleagues we wouldn’t say in public, and there is no ill-intent. We make off- color remarks, repeat jokes about men or women, and speak the truth to people we trust in unguarded ways. If we go too far, or do it too often – and particularly if our actions seem to suggest a malignancy -- others begin to distrust our motives.  And that’s the standard we hope for in politicians – that they will act like normal, honest people; not shrink-wrapped products calculating every word for our vote. If I thought there was a pattern in Hagel’s words and actions, I’d denounce his nomination. But let’s not attack him for imperfections of language common to us all.

*He is already one of the voices advising the President, as co-chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. 

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