The President pushed his Pentagon chief, then praised him.
Wednesday afternoon marked another one of those painful spectacles, where someone being forced out of the national spotlight was forced to grin and bear it as the person responsible for forcing him out publicly sang his praises. This time it featured President Obama hailing the brief, two-year tenure of Chuck Hagel, his third defense secretary.
Hagel—who will hang around the Pentagon for weeks until his successor, Ashton Carter, is confirmed—has spent recent days prowling the bowels of the Pentagon, thanking the unseen and unheralded for their work.
While the two men haven’t spelled out precisely what went wrong, disagreements over policies involving Syria and the detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are often cited. And Hagel’s body language since the White House shoved him out Nov. 24, made Wednesday’s formal sendoff in an Army hall not far from the Pentagon particularly awkward.
Obama: In October of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to a military base in New Mexico to review a top secret weapons program. And he went down to the White Sands Missile Range and out to the testing grounds. There, out in the desert, the president watched as soldiers demonstrated what would later become the famed Stinger Missile. And one of those soldiers was a 21-year old private from Nebraska named Charles Timothy Hagel. Now, the Secret Service does not usually let me get too close to an active weapons system. It makes them nervous…And let me assure you that I checked with the Secret Service, and Chuck will not be demonstrating any missile launches today…
Thanks to Secretary Hagel’s guiding hand, this institution is better positioned for the future. But Chuck, I want to suggest today that perhaps your greatest impact, a legacy that will be felt for decades to come, has been your own example. It’s not simply that you’ve been the first enlisted combat veteran and first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense, it’s how your life experience: being down in the mud, feeling the bullets fly overhead, has allowed you to connect with our troops like no other secretary before you.
At least some observers found Obama’s “joke” about Stingers off-key, given the fragging that went on in Vietnam. Hagel, who declined to attend the White House ceremony at which Obama announced Carter as his successor, however, dutifully took the podium and was gracious.
Hagel: Mr. President…thank you for being here today… I will soon leave this job that I have cherished… The opportunity to have been a part of all this is something I could not have imagined when I joined the Army 48 years ago… We’ve made mistakes. We will make more mistakes… One last point. Of all the opportunities my life has given me, and I have been blessed with so many, I am most proud of having once been a soldier.
In the end, everyone was glad it was over.