My Afternoon With Chuck Hagel

Opinion

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From my perch in Delaware, I can only marvel at how faded pols suddenly become white-hot in the blink of an eye.  Take former Senator Chuck Hagel, for instance.  I met him once back in 1999, early in his first Senate term. I’ve met many politicians in my career, but I won’t soon forget that afternoon in Hagel’s office.

I got there through a program in which I received paid time off from my executive branch job to work in a congressional office for six months.  The program had two goals: a learning experience for me and a way for my employer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, to build relations on Capitol Hill.  I had gotten a tip that working in the Senate would be an easier adjustment than the House, so I scanned the list of ag state senators and started working the phones.

Although Hagel wasn’t on the agriculture or appropriations committees, his committee assignments included international finance, and trade and export promotion. And his home state was Nebraska. I reckoned that would make the USDA folks happy. And he was a Republican, which made me happy. So one sunny afternoon, I was invited for an interview at Hagel’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building.

The reception area was unremarkable -- youngsters answering the constantly ringing phones, pamphlets for visiting constituents and a large coffee-table book about the Nebraska Cornhuskers, which I perused carefully for information on team colors, mascot, location of the university, etc.

A highly energized young man in his late twenties (was Red Bull around back then?) popped out of a door to usher me into the back office operations. I was led into a bullpen office with no room dividers, as a gaggle of younger twentysomethings yelled into their phones, clattered away at their computer keyboards or smacked the copy machine. I was introduced to a pleasant brunette who was “handling the ag stuff.” Of course, she was swamped and would be grateful for any help, etc.

Then my tour guide led me into the conference room where I would meet the senator himself.  This seemed to be an anxious moment for my guide. It wasn’t for me. I had learned something of the foreign service “self:” stand straight with feet together, have a firm dry handshake, look the man in the eye, maintain a respectful composure and never lie.

Fortunately, the senator hadn’t arrived yet, because the room contained something that threw me for a curve.  There, in the left-hand corner next to the big window overlooking the conference table was a red and silver-gilt barber’s chair. It looked like a prop from one of the "Godfather" movies.

Of course, my guide noticed my noticing, saying in a low tone: “Sometimes, he likes to sit in the chair.” Uh-huh.

Then the door burst open, and, as the Irish would say, Himself arrived with a handshake. 

He was smiling, chattering away, all the usual things. Then he indicated the barber’s chair. “How about that,” he said, grinning like a boy with a new toy. Naturally, I admired the chair and was reminded of long-ago friends from Los Angeles who got their home furnishings from the MGM props auctions. Then it was more grinning, thank-you-for-stopping-by’s and Himself was on to his next meeting.

My guide was visibly relieved, and I inquired about his favorite brand of beer. I dropped off a thank-you six-pack later that day. And that was my afternoon at Chuck’s.

What happened to my fellowship assignment? I opted for a Republican senator who was on agriculture appropriations. His office was nice and quiet, with no quirky furniture. And I had a terrific time learning about the magic of earmarks. But that’s another story.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

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