Will It Be 'Ambassador Hagel?'

(When White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs moved the time of his briefing Friday from 2:30 PM back to 12:30 and then back to 12:15, many of my colleagues in the press corps thought something was up.  Perhaps the President would appear in person to name his choice to succeed retiring Justice David Souter on the Supreme Court.

As it turned out, there was nothing of the sort at the May 22 briefing.  But, in a most pleasant surprise to my colleagues and me, the President’s top spokesman did something rarely seen at the James Brady Briefing Room:  he started the session with reporters on time.)

Six days after the appointment of Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. of Utah as ambassador to Beijing, I asked Gibbs if we could we expect the appointment of another Republican to a key diplomatic position in the next two weeks:  specifically, that of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who had broken with President George W. Bush on the Iraqi War and never endorsed old friend and fellow Republican John McCain for President against Obama last year.

“I do not have anything specific on former Sen. Hagel,” Gibbs told me, “Obviously, the President has great respect for Sen. Hagel.  I don’t have anything specific personnel-wise on that.”

In not ruling out “anything specific” on Hagel (who now teaches at Georgetown University), Gibbs did nothing to tamp down rumors that the Nebraskan and one-time Reagan administration official would join the Obama administration in some capacity.  Rumors of a diplomatic position for Hagel first came to me during the recent IMF-World Bank meeting in Washington. When Huntsman’s appointment to the Beijing post was announced, there were published reports that Obama had first made overtures to others — among them Hagel — before settling on the Utah governor.

An Indian-American businessman I met at the annual session of Republican State Chairmen in National Harbor, Md., last week mentioned Hagel and specifically referred to the former senator becoming ambassador to New Delhi.  Talk of Hagel getting this key ambassadorship comes at a time when India’s Prime Minister Singh’s Congress Party won a landslide re-election and President Obama called last week to congratulate Singh and invite him to Washington.

When I tried to reach Hagel later in the day, a spokesman told me he was concluding the commencement address at the University of Maryland and would get back to me later.  There has not been a further response.

Gibbs went on to say at the briefing that President Obama “will continue to and hopes to add more Republicans to his administration.”