The Senate and the Hagel Nomination

February, 2013

Washington -- Last weekend Leon Panetta told a Sunday television news program that the knives were out in the Senate for Chuck Hagel. This reminds me of the 1989 nomination of former Senator John Tower to be Secretary of Defense. The big difference is that Tower was a drinker and womanizer; Hagel's troubles seem to result from a tendency to speak frankly and tell the truth as he sees it.

In 2011 Chuck Pallesen of Lincoln, Nebraska, who was writing a book about former Nebraska Senator Jim Exon, called me to ask about Exon's years in the Senate. I wrote him back a note with some anecdotes, among them the following. Exon was a leader in the fight against Tower, his former colleague on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Tower didn't forget it, and sought revenge.

John Tower was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be Defense Secretary. Sam Nunn decided to oppose him and enlisted Jim Exon in the effort. Together, they defeated Tower's nomination. Tower was spiteful and tried to get back at Jim Exon by calling him a drinker and suggesting that he was corruptly involved with an Omaha financial institution. NBC Nightly News, looking into the story, contacted Exon and asked him about a letter he had written to a federal regulatory agency on the financial institution's behalf. Exon told NBC that he had no recollection of the matter and that in any case the markings on the letter indicated it had been written by Jon Oberg and signed with the Senator's name by Dorithy Obbink. NBC News reached me in Berlin, over six years after I had left the Senate staff, and questioned me. I quickly dispelled the drinking allegation and asked them to read me the letter. I interpreted the letter for them, so they understood that in Senate-speak, the words actually signaled to the regulatory agency that they could do as they please and that Senator Exon was not getting involved in any way. NBC News got the point and then read me other letters that Senator Zorinsky and Congressman Cavanaugh had sent. We had a good laugh in that the other letters were so earnest and in hindsight foolish, and whoever was trying to use NBC Nightly News to discredit Jim Exon was doomed to fail. They killed the story promptly.

In 1994, Senator Exon and I recalled the affair in the Senators' dining room in the Capitol. It was the first time I had seen him since NBC's calls to me in Berlin. Jim Exon would be appalled at the manner of opposition to Chuck Hagel.