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Until the Adjectives Change, Expect Gridlock

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Yesterday Chuck Hagel won confirmation as the new U.S. Secretary of Defense after running the gantlet of hearings and votes before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full Senate, with a putative filibuster bridging those events. Each vote was close to party line, with only four Republicans joining the 52 Democrats and two independents who agreed to allow the Republican former senator to join a Democratic president’s inner sanctum.

It was a particularly ugly process (compared to, say, the relative ease Jacob Lew had in winning his new post of Treasury secretary). The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it, “Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense ended as it began—with a smear.”

Seeing that play out during the first vote, management consultant (and retired Navy captain) Ritch Eich suggests that the “disdainful theatrics” of these hearings are probably sending a poor signal to potential future leaders. As Eich, who in his career served on committees for Senators Dick Lugar (an R) and Carl Levin (a D), first posted on The Hill's Congress blog:

I watched with utter dismay this week as former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel tried to respond to a blatant, coordinated inquisitorial attack for nearly eight hours by his fellow Republican executioners at the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.

If many of the GOP solons hoped to dissuade idealistic American youth from public service, they surely succeeded beyond all expectations. With little exception, Senators McCain, Graham, Cruz, Inofe, Ayotte, Sessions, Fischer and others displayed behavior at times that can best be described by the following adjectives:

  • Bullying
  • Angry
  • Closed-minded
  • Self-righteous
  • Condescending
  • Egotistical
  • Callow, sophomoric
  • Spiteful

Whatever happened to civility, even-handedness, fairness, tolerance for positions that differ from our own, and the opportunity to fully answering questions posed? Many of the senators lectured Hagel at length yet demanded that he answer their questions with a yes or no answer and rudely interrupted him when he sought to amplify his previous positions. The deportment exhibited by several senators was more fitting for a trial than treating a former colleague with courtesy, respect and decency. The hearing was appalling for its lack of statesmanship.

And, let me be clear: this was not Hagel's "finest hour." Noted for a keen sense of humor, the few attempts he did make fell flat. His demeanor seemed as lackluster as President Obama did in his first debate with former Governor Mitt Romney.

Whether or not one agrees with the previous positions taken by Hagel and whether or not one believes he should be confirmed as the next secretary of defense, make no mistake that he is a man who cares deeply about his country, has served it ably in the Senate and courageously as a soldier-combatant (which too few senators have done), and that he did not seek the position. Confirmation hearings should be tough but not hostile, exhaustive but not punitive, and challenging but not a partisan witch-hunt with obvious personal animus being displayed.

It is clear that much of the animosity and intemperateness directed at Chuck Hagel was a poorly camouflaged rebuttal of President Obama’s foreign policy. And too, at Hagel directly, for having taken a path on Iraq that diverged from the “Three Amigos” and their friends. The fact that Hagel is a Republican matters not in the GOP game plan.

Finally, it would be refreshing if some senators refrained from using the hackneyed expression “thank you for your service” as the authors are too often insincere in its use. As a former enlisted sailor who became a naval officer during the Viet Nam era and who was raised Republican, I was chagrined by much of the behavior demonstrated by these “holy-than-thou” elected officials who couldn¹t carry Hagel¹s rifle any day of the year.

One can only hope the disdainful theatrics orchestrated by these senators will not persist in other confirmation hearings. Chuck Hagel is a bright, thoughtful and dedicated patriot and public servant who deserved an exacting, thorough and fair hearing, not the circus we witnessed. And, let¹s hope this unseemly hearing will not sway the next generation.

My own concerns are more immediate. With those adjectives still at play in jockeying over the sequester, I can’t see that more complex issue being settled until a new set of adjectives come to the fore (which, eventually, they will).