Gizzi on Politics: Chuck Hagel and Paul Gillmor

After Hagel

Today, September 10, a onetime Republican superstar will, in all likelihood, be have flamed out.  Two-term Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is almost certain to announce he will not seek re-election next year.

Elected in 1996 as a strong conservative who called for no taxes and abolishing the Department of Education, decorated Vietnam veteran, former Reagan Administration official, and investment banker Hagel was an overnight GOP sensation.  His background, resonant voice (Hagel was a former radio announcer), and knowledge of foreign policy sparked immediate talk of Hagel as an eventual Republican presidential hopeful.  Even this year, he stunned supporters by appearing poised to declare for the nomination, and then holding a press conference to say he had not yet made up his mind.

Like friend John McCain (whom he backed for President in 20000 and his own maverick predecessor in the Senate, progressive GOPer George Norris, Hagel irked supporters on the right by occasionally flirting with non-conservative issues — support of an energy bill to curb greenhouse emissions, writing legislation to allow more traceable political donations that was included in major campaign finance legislation enacted in Congress, and, most recently, backing the Administration on comprehensive immigration reform (just as Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska was fighting the measure.) 

But Sunday talk show favorite Hagel probably made his best known mark on the nation by breaking with President Bush on the Iraq War after initially supporting him.  Referring to Vietnam (where he took shrapnel during a skirmish and saved younger brother Tom Hagel’s life), the Nebraskan declared: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand there and accept the status quo and let it all happen again.” 

His lifetime American Conservative Union of 85% notwithstanding, Chuck Hagel infuriated conservatives in his own party.  State Attorney General Jon Bruning, distancing himself with Hagel on Iraq and illegal immigration, announced earlier this year he would run for the Senate regardless of what the incumbent did.  Republican National Committeeman Hal Daub, a past congressman (1980-88), mayor of Omaha, and two-time Senate candidate has also signaled he would run.  Columbus businessman Tony Raimondo and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johnanns (himself a former governor and mayor of Lincoln) could get into the race as well and financial advisor Pat Flynn has said he will run for sure.

Democrats may smell a chance of winning but only if they recruit a top-tier candidate.  The name most often mentioned is tahta of Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey.

My Own Thoughts:  As someone who knew Chuck Hagel since 1981, when he worked in the Washington office of Firestone Tires, I have always liked him.  Even when we disagreed or when I wrote an article that was critical, Chuck Hagel never took it personally.  In fact, he went out of his way to call me “John” when he spoke and called on me for questions — very much like a President giving a reporter some recognition.  For all the talk that he would “walk a mile for a camera” and in spite of the direction he moved in during the later years as senator, Chuck Hagel remained in my eyes what I first saw when we met long ago:  a sharp guy and a gentleman. 

Farewell to “Mr. Inside”

“The margin will hold up, don’t worry,” Paul Gillmor telephoned to tell me in May of 1988, “I want you to know to let your readers know.”  Anyone who was following the Republican primary in Ohio’s 5th U.S. House district knew what he was talking about:  then-Senate President Gillmor had run in the primary for the House seat vacated by Rep. Del Latta (R.-Ohio) thirty years.  His race with attorney Bob Latta, son of the congressman, was a true cliff-hanger, and I had to report there was no clear winner.  About eight days later, Gillmor was calling to tell me he had beaten the younger Latta — by 27 votes out of more than 63,000 cast!

Once I got the word, I barely congratulated him and, predictably, Gillmor and I were talking about the nuances of Ohio political history. Most people who had gone through a race like he did would probably hang up and head for bed for a week.  But not Paul Gillmor: my fellow political junkie laughed dauntingly when I could not recall the two other candidates in the four-candidate Republican primary for governor of his state in 1970 aside from winner Roger Cloud and Rep. Buz Lukens, the third-place finisher.  Gillmor had the state almanacs right in his office, looked up the names, and — as true political junkies would — no doubt smiled in triumph.

After the news of his sudden death last week at age 68, that was the Paul Gillmor I remembered:  big, avuncular, more often than not chewing an unlit cigar, and someone who truly loved history and politics.  He was never really a congressman that many outside his district or his colleagues knew well — although all who knew him genuinely liked him.  I can’t really remember any major interview with him on a particular issue beyond some not-so-flattering reminiscences about his state’s Democratic Sen. John Glenn and a warning that the former astronaut would be no pushover as ranking Democrat.

In the Senate committee investigating illegal campaign donations from abroad and chaired by a Republican senator named Fred Thompson.  (Gillmor was right, as Glenn repeatedly one-upped and stole scenes from the Tennessean who announced for president last week in the 1997 hearings.)

Rather, I recall running into the congressman on First Street (where HUMAN EVENTS had its offices from 1964-97) and getting into a discussion on maneuverings in the Ohio Republican Party.  We carried the conversation to my fourth floor office and the congressman was in  no hurry to go anywhere.

That was the Paul Gillmor I remembered — an insider, an operator, someone with a passion for politics, and a truly nice guy.

After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan and doing his stint in the U.S. Air Force, Gillmor at 27 won a seat in the Ohio Senate.  In rising to become Senate President, the man from Old Fort, Ohio increasingly clashed with the Buckeye State’s four-term Republican Gov. James Rhodes.  Although he was not as outspoken as other high-profile Rhodes foes — notably the late Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH) or State Sen. Tom Van Meter — they nonetheless adopted Gillmor as their ally.  In 1986, when Rhodes such a non-consecutive fifth term, Gillmor placed second in the primary against him.

With a lifetime rating of 81%, Gillmor was obviously no Ashbrook or no John Kasich, also a high-profile Ohio conservative in Congress.  A Member of the Energy and Commerce and Financial Services Committees, he was described by the Cleveland Plain Dealer as “a workmanlike lawmaker, chewing on unlit cigars as he pondered public policy,” uninterested in higher office or a leadership position.

His district bordered Michigan and he actually knew my wife, a Michigan resident, before I ever met her.

Paul Gillmor was my friend and to know him enriched my life.  Like so many others who had the pleasure of his company, I will miss him.