The format: A 90 minute informal Q&A hosted by Leon Panetta with Bob Graham, and Chuck Hagel and Leon sitting in a semicircle of easy chairs on the stage. The first half is comprised of Leon Peanetta asking questions, with Graham and Hagel given free rein to respond at length. In the second half Panetta asks questions submitted by the audience as vetted by a small committee of local academics and journalists.
There was no breaking news or earth shattering revelations in the event, but I found it interesting. I'll admit I wondered whether I should have saved some time and money and watched the webcast from home, but I am glad I went. There is a difference when your butt is planted in a seat and watching something live vs. a screen at home. Not the least of which is that the interaction in the auditorium had my undivided attention, as opposed to say - simultaneously watching a webcast on the laptop, an exhibition NFL game on TV, while commenting on QoDys or Wonkette blog posts and sucking down a couple of beers. There is a qualitative difference that I just can't put my finger on.
For this post, there is no particular theme, just highlights of some of the dialog where I registered a mental note over the evening. Since I am relying on memory, all "quotes" are paraphrased (but not completely imaginary).
Panetta kicked it off by noting the continuing speculation about Chuck Hagel's presidential ambitions and asking "So what the hell are you going to do Chuck?" to which Hagel replied "Well, I am sure as hell not going to tell you here." Followed by the usual " I need to talk this over with my family and make a decision over the next month ... yadda yadda yadda." He also waxed philosophical saying he never felt that his identity was tied to his job title, whether that is Senator or President, and didn't feel a driving need to be President. To which I think - that is exactly the kind of person we need as President. Others in the audience had a different reaction - overheard on the escalator after the lecture: "Hagel doesn't have the fire in his belly to run for President." The conversation moved into the "broken" presidential election process, with Hagel and Graham repeating the "regional primary" plan they discussed in the press conference linked above.
The news of the day was Karl Rove's resignation. Panetta wondered whether the resignation could have an effect rehabilitating the last year of the Bush presidency. Graham was dismissive, saying it is just too late for this President to salvage his legacy. Hagel was more sanguine, saying that Rove and Gonzales are lightning rods for criticism and their resignations would open a door. He spun a scenario where Gonzales also resigns, Bush shifts strategy on Iraq in the fall, and gets a major piece of bi-partisan legislation through congress next year. That, he asserts would elevate the Bush legacy.
The discussion segued into Iraq and comparisons to Vietnam, a topic we have explored on this blog from time to time. Hagel was most animated when talking about the damage done to our standing in the world, our force structure and the Army by the policies of this administration. He generally kept an even keel relaxing in the easy chair, but this topic got him going. This is where he sees a clear parallel to Vietnam and believes it will take years, and perhaps decades to undo the damage, as it did after Vietnam. That said, he offered some "inside baseball' perception of an evolving administration strategy in Iraq. Pointing to continuing erosion of support in the Senate, the Petraeus Report next month, and trial balloons launched by SECDEF Robert Gates in a recent MTP interview, he sees the administration strategy in Iraq shifting by the end of the year.
Maybe there was some news in the event. I am always struck by how the perception of a news story is shaped by the crafting of a headline. Lets try it - you tell me - is this news?
Maybe. Maybe not.
"Hagel: Gonzales to resign / Bush shifting Iraq strategy before year end."
The second half of of lecture had the guests responding to questions written by the audience, screened and selected for Panetta to present. I was tipped off to the question process by a couple of series subscribers I met over coffee and pecan pie in the reception area before the event. Entering the auditorium, there is a basket with 4 x6 yellow note cards, a box of stubby pencils and no explanation. The questions written on these cards are collected within the first 30 minutes of the lecture, so you've got to be prepared. I started scribbling my question the moment I sat down. Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my carefully printed question filled an entire side of the yellow card and half of the reverse. I was asking what it would take for a GOP candidate to be nominated in a Republican party fragmented into evangelical, libertarian, and "loyal Bushie" factions. We'll never know the answer to that question, as it was not selected. Instead these questions from the audience were posed by Panetta:
- How do we get the budget from a deficit to a surplus again?
- What do we do about illegal immigration?
- What do we do about health care?
- What do we do about global warming?
I did get a sense of what a Hagel presidency would be like from his replies. His answer on all of these questions involved cooking up a plan informed by detailed input from experts, representation from all constituencies, seasoning it with some libertarian special sauce, folding in bi-partisan support, and serving up a comprehensive solution.
Hagel's appetite for practical solutions and bi-partisan results was apparent in an anecdote he related on the failed immigration bill. He said he knew the bill was DOA in the first briefing/strategy session between the administration and congressional representatives supporting the bill. As the unnamed administration officials began the briefing, Hagel interrupted them to ask "Where are the Democrats? How are we going to get this passed without Democrats?' The official explained that they didn't feel they needed Democrats in the meeting to develop a strategy. Hagel felt compelled to explain to the official that there had been an election in November and that the Democrats actually controlled Congress. He was laughing and shaking his head as he related the story.
Not all of his replies were impressive. The very last question was on global warming. Hagel responded with a classic Cornhusker "3 yards and a cloud of dust" obfuscation. He invoked everything including energy policy, the US and global economy, CO2 emissions, China, India, greenhouse gases, carbon trading, research supporting and questioning man-made causality, bipartisan support, international cooperation, - and still managed to say absolutely nothing. I was stunned. It was a suffocating cloud of pure Nebraska bullshit.
OK - It was the last question of a long program at the end of a long day. I'll give him a pass on that one.
One last bit of advice Chuck - if you are going to run, you've got to get that particular answer tightened up, or at least coherent. If you'd like a suggestion, the whole spectrum of conservation, climate change, and ecology issues could use an articulate advocate speaking in defense of the environment from libertarian principles. Let me know if I can help you out with that.