WASHINGTON — In the old days it was like a Senate buddy movie.
Sen. John McCain and Chuck Hagel traveled the world together, popped into each other’s neighboring offices on Capitol Hill and played pranks. Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, dropped by one Halloween wearing a McCain mask. McCain, an Arizona Republican, liked to jokingly fire Hagel’s staff.
“Pack up your desks!” he would say.
As Vietnam War veterans — McCain had been a naval officer and a pilot, Hagel an enlisted infantryman — they forged an even closer bond.
“John would call him sergeant — `Hey, Sergeant, come in, Sergeant!”’ said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is McCain’s closest friend in Washington. “They would salute each other.”
But as Hagel heads into contentious confirmation hearings to be President Obama’s secretary of defense, the two remain estranged over policy differences that started with the Iraq war, spread into bitter presidential politics and ultimately damaged, if not ended, a friendship. Some colleagues say the break between two iconoclasts has been exaggerated in the absolutist world of the capital, but no one disputes that the relationship has cooled dramatically.
“The Iraq war is where the policy differences became pretty difficult to deal with,” said Graham, speaking of McCain’s aggressive push for the 2007 surge of U.S. forces in Iraq and Hagel’s unsuccessful fight against that escalation. “The worldview really began to diverge.”
The differences were on full display when McCain released a statement after Hagel was nominated Monday saying he had “serious concerns” about the positions on national security that Hagel had taken over the years. The two spoke the same day by phone in what an aide called a cordial conversation — one of at least 30 calls to senators that Hagel has made this week in preparation for his hearing — but Tuesday on CNN, McCain had not changed his tone.
While “the friendship, I hope, is still there,” McCain said, he remained worried about Hagel’s “overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further.”
People who know both men say that at this point Hagel appears to have the votes for confirmation and that in the end McCain could well vote yes for the friend who was at his side during his unsuccessful 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But aides to both acknowledge the dynamic on Capitol Hill could change and that McCain — and others — will give Hagel a rough time. At the very least, they say, McCain remains bruised over Hagel’s decision not to support McCain when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, and over a trip that Hagel took with Obama to Iraq the same year.
“He was very angry about it,” said one of McCain’s 2008 advisers, who asked not to be identified discussing the complicated dynamics between the two. McCain “takes policy disputes very, very personally,” the adviser added. He described McCain’s current view of Hagel as one of “profound disappointment.”
McCain, 76, the son and grandson of admirals, and Hagel, 66, the son of a lumberyard worker who drank heavily and died when Hagel was in high school, first became political pals in 1996, when Hagel was running for the first time for the Senate.
McCain, who by then had been in the Senate nearly a decade and was nationally known, campaigned frequently for his fellow Vietnam veteran in Nebraska, much to the gratitude of Hagel and his staff. The two had similar personality traits: a sense of humor, brashness, bullheadedness and an aversion to Republican orthodoxy and hierarchy. By 2000 Hagel had returned the favor to become national co-chairman of McCain’s presidential campaign.
As one of only a small band of supporters in the Senate, Hagel was a regular on the “Straight Talk Express,” McCain’s rolling campaign bus party. He exulted with McCain during his upset victory in New Hampshire, roared back at a smear campaign against McCain in South Carolina and by the end of the primaries was a broker for an uneasy peace between McCain and the Republican nominee, George W. Bush.
Friends say the strains between the two began in 2002, when Hagel emerged as an early and acerbic Republican skeptic to the Bush administration’s plans for invading Iraq. Hagel voted for the resolution that authorized the invasion but rapidly became a critic of the Bush administration’s execution of the war. McCain was equally critical but saw the solution in an addition of more than 20,000 U.S. troops, which Hagel opposed.
“This is a Ping-Pong game with American lives,” Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2007. “And we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.”
McCain saw Hagel’s views as wrongly colored by the brutal combat he saw as an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam, where he was wounded twice. (McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and for the next five years was imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese.)
“I think he was very haunted by Vietnam,” Graham said of Hagel. McCain, he said, “doesn’t look at every conflict through the eyes of his Vietnam experience — you know, `We shouldn’t have been there, it went on too long, we didn’t have a plan.’ Fighting al-Qaida is not fighting in Vietnam.”
Some former staff members insist that Iraq was not the divisive force between the two men that it has been made out to be and that they naturally drifted apart when McCain began campaigning again for president in 2007 and spent less time in Washington. Hagel left the Senate at the end of 2008.
“Although McCain disagreed with Hagel’s position, he never resented him for it,” Mark Salter, McCain’s former chief of staff and a top adviser in the 2008 campaign, wrote on the website RealClearPolitics this week, referring to the differences over the surge.
The two just stopped socializing, he said, for no discernible reason.
“Not everything that happens in Washington fits into a neat narrative or affects history,” Salter wrote. “Sometimes it’s just another unremarkable occasion when people go their own way for their own quirky reasons.”
Others hold out the possibility of a rapprochement, however remote.
“You have two guys who are hurt, and you know how guys are, they don’t make up unless there’s a woman around who forces them,” said one of Hagel’s former staff members who did not want to be identified discussing the conflict. “They would rather be friends than not; I’m quite certain of that.”