Former aides to Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s pick to be U.S. defense secretary, are passionately shooting down charges from Republicans that their old boss is too volatile for a position of such import.
Since the White House floated his name as a potential nominee in early December, the former Nebraska Republican senator has been called anti-semitic, soft on Iran and too reluctant to use U.S. military force.
This week brought a new — and much more personal — attack.
“I think another thing … that’s going to come up is just his overall temperament, and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Jan. 13 on ABC’s “This Week” program.
Corker wasn’t done, alleging, “there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them,” Corker said.
Corker did not elaborate on those charges. Nor did he provide specific examples or anecdotes. His office, at the time of this posting, had yet to respond to multiple requests for additional information.
Several hours after Corker’s comments, a Defense News reporter, via Twitter, asked any former Senate aides who had worked closely enough with Hagel to judge his temperament to reach out via email. Nearly 10 former Hagel aides, many of whom worked for Hagel for at least three years, did so.
In a series of telephone interviews conducted Jan. 14-16, each former staffer passionately defended their former boss, and harshly criticized his former GOP colleagues and the issue groups attempting to derail his nomination.
Defense News on Jan. 14, again using Twitter, issued a second request, asking any Senate aides who “witnessed, or heard of, Sen. Hagel being temperamental/rough on aides” to reach out via email. None did.
Three former aides could recall colleagues who had a rough time working for Hagel, but also said short-timers in his Senate office were outnumbered by those who stayed for years, and others who left only to return later in their careers.
“Look, for some people, that kind of intense environment was not the best fit,” said one former Hagel aide who left the Senate office but later returned. “Those people usually moved on. Sen. Hagel was clear with us all: This was not some poli-sci experiment. We were there to do a good job. That’s what he expected.”
But every former Hagel staffer who contacted Defense News indicated Corker’s description of their former boss is inaccurate.
“It’s just perplexing for me to think that Sen. Hagel might be viewed through the lens of having treated staff poorly,” said one former Hagel staffer who worked for the now-nominee for about four years.
Another former aide, Tom Janssen, used the same word in a separate interview to describe his reaction to Corker’s charge: “Perplexed.”
“Was I on the receiving end of direct conversations? Sure. But [Hagel] was always respectful and never crossed the line,” Janssen told Defense News. “I always left those conversations smarter than when I went in.
“I would rather have a conversation with a boss who was direct than to just be left hanging out there and wonder if I’m doing a good job. … [Aides] were only in trouble if they had done something wrong after it was clearly explained to them in the past,” Janssen said. He added that while Hagel was direct at times, he also “was always generous with praise, and gave it out frequently and in many different forms.”
Two common themes emerged from the former aides’ individual testimonials: Hagel had high expectations for himself and his staff, and the former senator was tough but fair.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone who has excelled like Sen. Hagel has not having very high standards for himself and anyone he chooses to bring onto his staff,” the four-year aide said. “And he had high standards for other senators.”
Aides acknowledged then-Sen. Hagel drove his staff hard at times. Several chuckled as they recalled their former boss typically beating them to the office in the morning — and being the last to leave at night.
“He always worked harder than the people on his staff. He always had spoken to five more people than you, or had read five more articles on every subject,” said Beth Sanzone, who worked for Hagel from late 2000 until early 2004. “He was passionate. He expected the best out of his staff — and he expected even more from himself.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles based on a series of conversation with nearly 10 former aides to Chuck Hagel, who is President Obama’s nominee to become defense secretary. Please check DefenseNews.com later this week for the second installment.