March Madness, or The Chuck Hagel Show With bated breath, politicos waited on March 12 for Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's big announcement on his political future. Alas, the news was anticlimactic: The vocal Republican opponent of the president's Iraq policy won't decide on a White House run until later this year.
NPR logo March Madness, or The Chuck Hagel Show

March Madness, or The Chuck Hagel Show

Certainly not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Let's wait for the next press conference. hide caption

toggle caption

Democrats Frank Church and Hubert Humphrey hoped there would still be time for them to get in the 1976 prez race late. They were wrong. hide caption

toggle caption

Probably the only person to come out of the Hagel event with his reputation enhanced. hide caption

toggle caption

Nineteen years ago today, House Judiciary Committee chair Rodino — he of Nixon impeachment fame — announces his retirement. hide caption

toggle caption

There are certain images that stay with you forever. Man landing on the moon. American hockey players stunning the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Now we can add one more: Chuck Hagel's March 12 news conference.

It was everything a political junkie could ask for. For weeks, Washington had been on tenterhooks, awaiting word from the senior senator from Nebraska about his political future. Would the conservative Republican, who opposes President Bush on the Iraq war, jump into the race for the White House? Would he run as an independent? Would he simply seek re-election to a third Senate term? Or would he retire from politics altogether? Hagel let it be known that he would address his future plans at an Omaha news conference.

And then came the magical moment. Chuck Hagel on March 12, 2007: "I'm here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year."

Talk about flashbacks! It reminded many of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or President Reagan's demand that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down that wall." Dramatic stuff.

OK, so maybe I'm just having fun with Hagel's speech, but given what everyone was led to believe, it was really a surreal event that left more questions than it answered.

Chuck Hagel has become the conservative Republican Washington loves to love, like Arizona Sen. John McCain was in 2000 (Hagel supported him back then), because he breaks from GOP orthodoxy from time-to-time. And by "time-to-time," it's really about a single issue: the war in Iraq. Hagel's opposition to it makes some Democrats giddy — the way they were in 2000 with McCain — even though both men are solidly pro-life and quite conservative. So it was with a sort of breathlessness that some approached Hagel's event.

But nothing happened. Nothing other than Hagel saying that any announcement will come later in the year. It was the oddest sensation, as the realization settled in that a complete non-announcement announcement was at hand. One Washington wag, who happens to write this column, said it reminded him of the time when New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller held a ballyhooed news conference on March 21, 1968, to announce what everyone thought would be his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination – only he said he wouldn't run after all. The move deflated his many supporters, and by the time Rocky changed his mind and did declare his candidacy a month later, many of his backers were long gone. (Of course, this same person realizes that by mentioning this event now, in this week's column, he can't use it as next week's "this day in campaign history" feature.)

It's probably worth noting that Hagel's standing among potential Republican primary voters is in the low single digits. Nobody really knows who he is. And the common refrain is that in a pro-Bush and a pro-war party, there really is no logical constituency for Hagel, who —- while he says it is incorrect to call him "antiwar" — is nonetheless the most prominent Republican critic of the president's handling of the war. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Hagel calls Iraq the worst foreign policy mistake since Vietnam.

But could he make a difference? Some polls show that up to one-third of GOP voters have had enough of the war. In a multi-candidate field filled with backers of a troop "surge" — the exceptions are Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Texas Rep. Ron Paul – Hagel might make an impact. And what of the rumors that Hagel could effectively run as an independent? I don't envision that for a second, but it's out there.

Still, with the compressed 2008 presidential primary schedule, in which the nominees of both parties likely will be decided by Feb. 5, is it feasible for someone to get into the race so late in the year — after the other candidates have long been lining up endorsements, staff and financing? I'm not sure. But it's certainly Newt Gingrich's hope.

The former House speaker says he will assess the GOP field in September or October, and if he feels he can make a difference, he'll get in. And Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who gave up politics to go into acting, says he is considering a late run as well. Gingrich, of course, recently conceded that he was having an extra-marital affair while he was leading the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. And Thompson long had the rep as someone too disinterested in Washington to focus on politics. And now he's going to run for president? I suspect that neither gets in.

Senate Prospects: No Democrat of any stature has come forward to challenge Hagel for re-election in 2008; nor, for that matter, has any Republican. Hagel won in 2002 with 83 percent of the vote — the greatest margin for any Nebraska Senate candidate in history. (Though Eric Martin, an interactive media specialist for Native American Public Telecommunications in Lincoln, writes to tell us that, as of January, President Bush was more popular among Cornhusker Republicans: They gave Bush a 68 percent approval rating, while Hagel got 59 percent.)

Why John Y? Some of Hagel's early comments at the press conference were dedicated to John Y. McCollister, a former Nebraska congressman, who was sitting in the first row. McCollister served in the House from 1971 until he gave up his seat to unsuccessfully run for the Senate in 1976. He gave Hagel his first job in Washington. One of the more interesting McCollister campaign buttons reads "John Y. McGumption." It refers to the fact that McCollister was elected to Congress in 1970 after unseating a fellow Republican, Glenn Cunningham, in the GOP primary. McCollister had portrayed Cunningham as too willing to accommodate Democrats.

And speaking of candidates who may or may not get into the race ...

Q: Why is there so much coverage about the top three Democrats, and so little about my favorite, Wesley Clark? — Sam Appleby, Boulder, Colo.

Q: Will the Democratic primaries allow a centrist or a moderate, like Gen. Wesley Clark, to win the nomination and, hopefully, allow the Democratic Party to carry the traditionally conservative Southern states, as well as the traditionally progressive states of the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest? — Joseph Sinasky, Worcester, Mass.

A: The short answer is that, whatever strengths Clark may bring to the table, I don't think he's running. He's been vague about his intentions from the get go, and, frankly, there has been very little chatter about him trying again for the nomination.

In 2004, Clark started late, skipping Iowa. He finished a somewhat impressive third in New Hampshire (ahead of John Edwards), but ultimately, it did not make much of a difference. He triumphed in just one primary, Oklahoma (winning by about 1,000 votes over Edwards).

Clark has been making the case against the war in Iraq for years now. But though he has been included on some lists as a "potential" or "likely" candidate, he has not even set up an exploratory committee. Appearing in New Hampshire the other day, he had this double negative response to a potential Clark candidacy: "I haven't said I won't run." I'll say it for him.

Q: How many congressmen have gone directly from the House to the presidency without having served in the Senate? — Karen Kilroy, Akron, Ohio

A: Just one: James Garfield. The Ohio Republican congressman was elected to the Senate by his state legislature on Jan. 13, 1880, for a term that was to commence on March 4, 1881. But Garfield became the unexpected presidential nominee at the 1880 GOP convention, and went on to win the presidency that November. The following month, he turned down the Senate, and in March 1881, he was sworn in as president.

Garfield's stay in the White House didn't last long. He was shot on July 2, 1881, and died some 10 weeks later.

REMEMBERING EAGLETON: Last week's column reviewed the career of Thomas Eagleton, the former Missouri senator who was, briefly, the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee; he died on March 4. Mark Abels of St. Louis,, who was Eagleton's press secretary years ago (and who was involved in his memorial service), calls his death "a great loss to America. Yes, he played a key role in the passage of the War Powers Act, but did you know that he voted against final passage? The bill as Tom introduced it would have placed real limits on the president's power to wage war without congressional approval. But the House so emasculated it that Tom was one of the few to vote 'no' when the compromise bill came back for final Senate passage. If the House had listened to Tom Eagleton then, the Iraq fiasco might never have happened."

Bob Levine, also of St. Louis, writes that he knew Eagleton well: "In '72 I was with him in mid-October when we met George McGovern for the first time since [Eagleton] withdrew as McGovern's choice for vice president. We drove to a shopping mall, and more than 50,000 people saw him introduce McGovern and give a typical Eagleton rousing speech. ... I only wish you could have been with us at the service. It was one for the ages." The last time Bob saw Eagleton was in September, at the opening of a local Democratic candidate headquarters: "He was thin and shaking but gave, once again, a rousing speech."

WE'RE ON THE AIR: Despite protestations from upper management, the "Political Junkie" segment on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, continues to run every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Eastern. Check local listings to see if your NPR station carries TOTN. If not, you can listen to the program on the Web at (And, in answer to a question from Ken Gursky of Basking Ridge, N.J., TOTN can be found in the New York City area on WNYE (91.5 FM).) This week's segment: the Bush administration and the fired U.S. attorneys, and the exciting news about Chuck Hagel's future.

HOLY COW! OK, so not everyone got the Scooter reference in last week's episode of our "It's All Politics" podcast. This week, my cohort Ron Elving is off — he's trying to recover from the dramatic news about Chuck Hagel's future. And so, at the risk of ending his career, I've conned NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea into appearing on the show. Check out the new edition every Thursday afternoon.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Campaign History: House Judiciary Committee chair Peter Rodino, a New Jersey Democrat, announces he will not seek re-election to the seat he first won in 1948. Rodino, 78, became a household name during the Nixon impeachment hearings of 1974 (March 14, 1988).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: