car·riage re·turn

n. the lever or mechanism on a typewriter that would cause the cylinder on which the paper was held (the carriage) to return to the left margin of the page

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Let the Train Blow the Whistle When I Go –A Farewell to Chuck Hagel

In years past the term “maverick”was ascribed to Sen. John McCain of Arizona for his willingness to break ranks with fellow Republicans,cross the aisle,and vote with the opposition on issues such as gun control and financial/taxation legislation. Though McCain has a historically strong conservative voting record (82.3% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union),once he supported the neo-conservative establishment on the Iraq War McCain’s “Straight Talk Express”catastrophically derailed,taking its “maverick”engineer along with it into the ditch.

Nebraska’s connection to railroads is nearly as old as the Republican Party itself. Rooted in the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and the founding of the Union Pacific Railroad that same year in Omaha,the original American transcontinental railroad shoots westward from here on UP rails to Sacramento,CA. The railroads,formerly a mighty engine of the American economy,have been toiling through hard times for a half-century. Many of most-storied railroads have passed on into legend or survive in-name-only today,merged with other lines over the last fifty years,stripped down to the barest essentials in order to stay solvent. With each passing day it appears that the Grand Old Party,hijacked by dangerous fanatics with an agenda anathema to Party history,is riding these same rails toward political insolvency and,perhaps,extinction. How fitting,then,that one of the last bastions of sane,traditional conservative thought is Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel,a man of conviction and true maverick. As a highly-respected Republican,Hagel is the harshest Senate critic of the demented neo-conservatives at the controls of the speeding-toward-oblivion GOP Express.

Last week Senator Hagel made the announcement that he will not seek re-election at the end of his term,deciding to both retire from Congress and not pursue higher office. Many disgruntled voters,abandoned by the disturbing Statist shift within the Republican Party,have hoped Sen. Hagel would leave the addled elephant for an independent or third-party bid for the White House. While disappointment is a valid emotion to have following Sen. Hagel’s decision,thankfulness is perhaps the more fitting way to feel. Chuck Hagel was elected to office in 1996,garnering 53% of the vote in a incredible upset of then-Governor Bob Nelson. It was during that campaign that Chuck Hagel stated that,if elected,he would limit himself to two terms:

I support Term Limits. However,I will not need Term Limits. Twelve years in Congress is enough for anyone. We should return to the Founding Fathers’concept of the “citizen-legislator,”and Term-Limits (sic) would help preserve that ideal. When elected officials stay too long in the same job,they become institutionalized and co-opted by the system.

One reads such words and thinks immediately of permanently immobilized legislative fossils such as Trent Lott,Edward Kennedy,Ted Stevens,Harry Reid,and Robert Byrd,all so beholden to their parties and corrupted by their power that they have truly been “co-opted by the system.”For Senator Hagel to step down at a time when his voice is perhaps the most ringing indictment of the folly of the present administration is most unusual in modern American politics. Instead of using his position as the sanest of Senate Republicans as a cudgel with which to bash the neo-con Kool-Aid-drinking lemmings on his side of the aisle,Senator Hagel has shown himself to be homo pollicens (a man of his word),a species nearly extinct within the Washington beltway.

Senator Hagel isn’t running from a fight. Apart from former-POW John McCain,there might not be an American politician carrying greater scarring from armed conflict. Sergeant Hagel was gravely wounded twice in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam in early 1968. The first wound came from a patrol in March. One of the men in his squad tripped a booby-trap,sending shrapnel flying. Sgt. Hagel was stuck in the chest and thrown to the ground,where his brother Tom found him. Lifting Chuck’s shirt,geysers of blood shot up,forcing Tom to patched up his brother’s torn-up chest as best he could. Less than a month later Chuck would pull Tom,bleeding and unconscious,from the blazing wreckage of a convoy which had run over a landmine and was taking enemy fire. Chuck’s face was incinerated in the incident,and the charred remains took over a decade to heal. Nearly forty years later,Senator Hagel’s still carrying some shrapnel in his chest as a reminder of Vietnam,not that he needs it:

University of Nebraska journalism professor Charlyne Berens,who wrote the 2006 biography Chuck Hagel:Moving Forward,said Hagel recalled to her his evacuation after the second incident,his face broiled and his ear drums ruptured. He thought,“If I ever get out,and if I ever can influence anything,I will do all I can to prevent war.”

For his trouble he was awarded two Purple Hearts,the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry,Army Commendation Medal,and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

After Vietnam Chuck Hagel finished school while working as both a bartender and radio newscaster. He eventually became a staffer for Nebraska Congressman John Y. McCollister,one of the first Republicans to break with his party and call for Nixon’s head. In 1980 Hagel worked for the Regan campaign as an organizer,and after the inauguration was named deputy administrator for the Veteran’s Administration. It was during his tenure at the VA that Mr. Hagel would again see the bitter hypocrisy of Washington. Rick Weidman,Vietnam vet and the Vietnam Veterans of America’s head of government affairs,remembers the ugly situation at the VA:

“I think the world of Chuck Hagel,” he said,recalling how Hagel quit his job as deputy administrator for the Veterans Administration in 1982. His boss,then-Veterans Administrator Robert Nimmo,had a history of antagonizing Vietnam vets,calling them “crybabies” and seeking to cut off research into the physical effects of Agent Orange exposure,wrote [Charlyne] Berens in Moving Forward. Hagel quit and was unemployed at the age of 36;Nimmo soon resigned amid a threatening scandal over his use of the office for personal gain. To many,Hagel was a hero all over again.

“He resigned over principle,it was a wonderful scene,” Weidman said,noting that Hagel immediately became “our champion in the Senate” when he was elected in 1996.

How sad it is that a quarter of a century later Senator Hagel was again forced to deal daily with self-serving,bigoted,grandstanding hawks more than content to send poorly-equipped servicemen into harm’s way,then treat them with disrespect and out-right neglect upon their return. No wonder Chuck Hagel is so pissed off. His entire party seems to have lost its mind binge-drinking on the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz moonshine,spending funds like drunken sailors,and insulting the whole of the American military by playing a gigantic,ill-conceived game of Risk in the Middle East and then treating that game’s vets below piss-poor medical care.

This war is something that’s been eating him for years now. He’s not some Johnny-come-lately member of the Congressional followership posturing himself in a politically expedient manner against a unpopular,disastrously managed war. He’s a man actually being skewered on a daily basis by his own party for his stances,as he has been for years.

An instinctive and unwavering conservative on most issues — in particular,big government and deficits — he was the antithesis of a neocon,a profile to which The Weekly Standard paid backhanded tribute in 2002 when it included him (along with Powell,Scowcroft and The New York Times) in what it called “the axis of appeasement.”In the cruelest cut,in that brief period of easy,triumphalist anticipation before the invasion and its turbulent aftermath,National Review put Nebraska’s senior senator down as Senator Hagel (R.,France).

The problem for the New Republican Party is that Senator Hagel was right about Iraq all along,and he’s not letting the neo-cons drunk at the wheel forget it. He was right before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when he said “How many of us really know and understand Iraq,its country,history,people and role in the Arab world?. . .The American people must be told of the long-term commitment,risk and cost of this undertaking. We should not be seduced by the expectations of dancing in the streets.”That the conservative Senator Hagel was right about Iraq is also what has made him a target for his fellow conservatives,not to mention the lunatic wing of the GOP controlled by fascist Rudy Giuliani and his brown-shirt acolytes. As The American Conservative observed:

There is a political web set to snare Hagel on the road to a Republican nomination,and it was no more evident than at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March.

Throbbing with the conservative movement’s old guard elite and college acolytes—who seem to spend most of their time waiting in line for autographs from Newt Gingrich or jamming into the ballroom to catch the likes of Ann Coulter flinging the customary red meat—this Washington confab had little time for Hagel. Questioned about a potential run,these self-proclaimed right wingers typically responded with a roll of the eyes and a shrug at best,at worst,a blank stare. That Republican is just not one of us,they said.

Yet here at ground zero of the conservative movement were innumerable depictions of the late President Ronald Reagan,tons of literature and rhetoric about the sanctity of life,traditional values,constitutional correctness,limited government,states’ rights,and self-determination. In his 11 years as a U.S. senator,Hagel has in some way defended them all,yet he is a pariah in what should be his political comfort zone.

Simply put,it is the 800-pound gorilla that no one at CPAC wanted to talk about this year—the war in Iraq—that has come between Hagel and the conservative grassroots. It is why they are willing to overlook Republican Rudy Giuliani’s anti-gun and pro-gay positions or Mitt Romney’s mid-career conversion against abortion. Rewarded with rock- star treatment at CPAC,both of those presidential hopefuls eagerly brandished their support for President George W. Bush on the war—if they were forced to talk about it.

A man abandoned,even demonized,by his scandal-ridden,untrustworthy party,Senator Hagel is one Republican every American,blue,red,white,and green,should applaud. In an atmosphere of broken promises and conditional statements,Chuck Hagel is leaving the Senate,just like he promised to.As he boards what might be the last conservative train out of Washington,I salute Chuck Hagel for his service to our country,service has gone massively under-appreciated by those who should be his supporters and by those who have attacked him for doing the right thing from the beginning. It is unfortunate that his recognition is only coming at the end of a praise-worthy Senate tenure,and that his retirement will be overshadowed by both a war and Presidential campaign that smacks of opportunism from nearly every angle.

I don’t want no aggravation
When my train has left the station
If you’re there or not,I may not even know
Have a round and remember
Things we did that weren’t so tender
Let the train blow the whistle when I go

On my guitar sell tickets
So someone can finally pick it
And tell the girls down at the Ritz I said hello
Tell the gossipers and liars I will see them in the fire
Let the train blow the whistle when I go

- Johnny Cash

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