Vietnam veteran and ex-Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Isolation) made a stunning impression in his audition for the role of secretary of defense yesterday, though it was not quite the one that he wished. "Though he was being asked about things he had said over the course of the past 15 years, it was what Hagel said yesterday…that had his defenders reeling in shock and even his critics aghast at how poorly he handled himself," wrote John Podhoretz in the New York Post. Said Roger L. Simon, "They had to send him a note in the middle of the proceedings to remind him of the administration’s position on Iran and 'containment,' and even then [he] got it wrong."
"It is very clear from the testimony that Sen. Hagel will not be bringing the potato salad to the next Mensa picnic," a Democrat told the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. The Hill said he delivered a "shaky performance," "stumbled over some answers…and did little to covert critics who had deemed him unfit to serve."
But is there a precedent for denying someone an office because he is simply too dim to sit in it? The answer is, happily, yes.
The year was 1970, and the president was Richard M. Nixon, who wanted to make a statement on policy by a high profile nomination to an important position by naming a southern judge who was a strict constructionist to Abe Fortas's seat on the Supreme Court. When his first nominee, Clement F. Haynesworth, was rejected by liberals because of his rulings on labor and civil rights cases, he promptly came back with G. Harrold Carswell of Florida, routinely named to a lower court a few months earlier, whose confirmation then seemed assured.
As Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power, Democrats didn’t want to embarrass the president twice, and "the post-Fortas lust for revenge" had been sated, but the candidate got in their way. "Carswell was by no means the equal of Haynesworth. He was not a first class judge or, as the Senate became convinced after a full study of the record, even a first class man. . . . There was no single overwhelmingly obvious blemish…[just] a compelling portrait of a less than first class jurist who had no business in the seat" once held by giants. In Our Country, Michael Barone calls him much less than average, and suggests the fatal blow was struck by Roman Hruska (another Nebraska Republican), who, when Carswell was called "mediocre," replied: "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people…they are entitled to a little representation…We can’t all have Brandeises and Frankfurters and Cardozos out there."
The mediocre are represented too well already. Confirm Michele Flournoy, and let this one go.