The lead-up to today’s nomination of former GOP senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense has been marked by an aggressive smear campaign by neoconservatives determined to scuttle the bid. Among the ringleaders of this campaign has been the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, who has deemed Hagel unfit for service at the Pentagon.
It turns out though that Kristol was less worried about Hagel’s positions when he was being considered for a much higher position than Cabinet Secretary: Vice President of the United States. Hagel was among those on the short-list to be named as Vice Presidential candidate under then-Gov. George W. Bush on the Republican ticket in 2000. At the time, Kristol was a supporter of the possibility that Hagel would be a heart-beat away from the presidency, making the rounds on several cable shows to make the case.
When reading the transcript of Kristol’s appearance on Chris Matthews’ Hardball on Jun. 7, 2000, the irony is palpable. During the lead-in to the show, Matthews said, “Then we’re going to talk about what’s alleged to be a smear campaign against George W. Bush’s likely candidate for VP, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. That smear campaign, according to Bill Kristol, who’s going to join us, is being led by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott.” Kristol went on to accuse Lott of attempting to kill the chance of Hagel getting the nod, while forgoing the chance to bring up any negatives on Hagel when directly asked by Matthews. But Kristol made his feelings about then-Senator Hagel quite clear:
KRISTOL: Trent Lott does not like people [like Hagel] exercising independence.
MATTHEWS: Because they’re the very kind of people that you, Bill Kristol, like, right? You’re always championing the mavericks.
KRISTOL: Well, somewhat, yes.
The next week on Fox News, Kristol was more effusive in his praising of Hagel’s qualifications when talking with host Paula Zahn:
ZAHN: I want to have a broader conversation about that later, but I’m going to quickly continue to go down this list. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska?
KRISTOL: Impressive and attractive first-term senator, some foreign policy experience, a McCain supporter. So he reaches out to the McCain voters. I think he’s a pretty — has a pretty decent shot.
Several things can be read from Kristol’s early belief that Hagel was ready to be Vice President compared to his current thinking. It may be that Kristol did not fully vet the positions held by Hagel before agreeing that he should be on the GOP ticket in 2000 — a firm possibility given his support for Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. But it’s probably more likely that his belief in Hagel’s qualifications have dimmed since then due to Hagel’s abandonment of support for the Iraq War. After all, one of Kristol’s main critiques of Hagel now is that Hagel has expressed skepticism about the U.S. going to war with Iran. Indeed, during the height of the Iraq war in 2007, Kristol called Hagel “irresponsible” for withdrawing his support.