When John Kerry and Chuck Hagel climb Capitol Hill seeking Senate confirmation of their Cabinet nominations, John McCain’s ring is the one they must kiss. McCain is effectively sponsoring the Democrat Kerry but promises tough questions for Hagel, the maverick Republican who may well challenge Pentagon orthodoxies. The real heat, though, comes from the still smoldering ruin of the Vietnam War, which set the three on career paths that now intersect.
In the late 1960s, Hagel had just completed a tour leading infantrymen in combat when Kerry took the controls of his Swift boat — while McCain languished in a Hanoi prison. The unfinished character of the long ago war is revealing itself yet again. Even as each of these boomer politicians is entering what may be the last chapter of his political life, each man’s authority on national-security issues rests on his Vietnam experience.