Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel credited World War II-era veterans serving in the Senate for fostering respectful and bipartisan discussions in the 1990s, something constituents may not necessarily see in today's political climate.
"When I got to the Senate in 1996, it was never" so partisan and personal, Hagel said during a DefenseOne event Thursday. "As much as any other reason, it was because of the World War II generation. We had World War II veterans, both Democrats and Republicans, who commanded respect and anchored a civility and decency in the Senate."
As the members of "the Greatest Generation" began to retire or die, "I think we became loose from our moorings," he said.
Hagel credited lawmakers such as then-Sens. John Chafee, R-R.I., and a Marine veteran, and John Warner, R-Va., who served in both the Navy and Marine Corps, for understanding the need to step in and defuse partisan rhetoric for the good of the American people. Chafee and Warner both also served as secretary of the Navy.
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Hagel's remarks closely mirror what former Vice President Joe Biden said at the late Sen. John McCain's funeral: Decades ago, two colleagues, no matter what side of the aisle, could challenge one another but still be respectful.
Hagel, an Army sergeant during the Vietnam War, said he's hopeful that "we will come back to that" type of political resolution and leadership.
"This year, you're seeing more veterans run for office," he said. Through outreach programs he works with, he's helped mentor vets who are just beginning their political careers. "And by the way, I don't give a damn if they're Democrat or Republican. I want people who care about their country, who are decent, who are honest, who do the right thing.
"The reality is leaders are not stamped or printed or made. Leaders are developed," he added, citing McCain's service.
Hagel, who served as a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, said democracy ebbs and flows, with strife to be expected not just between citizens but in the White House and Congress.
"I have great confidence this country will to continue to produce significant leaders," he said.