It was August 1998 and Washington was embroiled in President Clinton’s adultery scandals. Chuck Hagel, though, had his eye on the next president. So he asked George W. Bush if Hagel could meet with him at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. Karl Rove, then a top adviser to the governor, says he remembers Hagel flying to Austin after Rove politely tried to dissuade him from the trip because the governor’s schedule was crowded.
Hagel flew to Austin anyway. In a meeting with Bush, Rove says, the freshman Nebraska senator gave the governor his personal endorsement for the 2000 election cycle. Bush said he appreciated the senator’s endorsement, but asked him to keep it quiet for the time being, according to Rove, because the governor had not yet announced he was running. After the meeting, Hagel flew to Omaha, Nebraska, and told a group of agricultural executives that he was urging Bush to run. The story was covered in the August 10 edition of the Omaha World Herald, and Hagel briefly became one of the first major politicians to endorse George W. Bush for the presidency.
But the Hagel endorsement didn’t last long. A few months later, when fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain announced his own run for the presidency, Hagel gave his endorsement to McCain. “He wanted to be a big guy and talk to the paper,” Rove said. “Then when McCain became a credible candidate he just flipped. That’s Hagel: mercurial, focused on doing it his way.”
For Hagel’s supporters, the former senator’s willingness to change his mind is praised as independent thinking. But for many Republicans today, this quality makes him something of a turncoat. And while Hagel has been attacked for his views on Iran and Israel, it may end up being the former senator’s “mercurial” temperament that will turn Obama’s nomination of a Republican to head the Pentagon into a full-on battle with the party of Lincoln.