The rare diplomat

Sen. Chuck Hagel abandons Republican talking points and says a statewide hand recount may be required for "legitimate finality."

Published November 20, 2000 12:19AM (EST)

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., is disregarding the Bush campaign's talking points.

Tuesday night on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," Hagel said that "it may well be ... the only way you're going to resolve this in a fair way, in a way that's perceived as being fair by both sides, is recount all 67 counties in Florida."

This is an action the Bush campaign has been fighting tooth and nail. From the very beginning of the Florida recount, the post-election game plan of Gov. George W. Bush has been to assert that he won on the night of Nov. 7, and that everything that has gone on afterward is the result of frivolous Democratic litigation.

As the only Republican to take such a stance, Hagel must be subjected to scads of recriminations from his party. But reached on Friday evening, Hagel says it hasn't been so bad.

"I know some of my Republican friends and colleagues would probably prefer me to take the company line, and I understand that," he says. "But I don't think it's in the best interests of George Bush and I want George Bush to be president. I worked hard for him; I think he's the right guy ... But at the same time we must guard that which is most precious, which is that the process that produces the next president must be seen as legitimate and validated."

The Bush campaign against the hand recounts truly began the very moment Vice President Al Gore called Bush to recant his concession, telling him that "circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you" and that "the state of Florida is too close to call."

Bush acted shocked, as if Gore's claim that Florida had yet to really be decided was nonsensical. Actually, Bush already knew. The man who was responsible for the networks' prematurely awarding the election to him, according to a recent article in the New Yorker, was Bush's first cousin, John Ellis, who was put in charge of the election decision desk at Fox News Channel. And Ellis had already called Bush to let him know the news: that Florida was once again too close to call.

Since then, every utterance from almost every Republican has been three-pronged: 1) Bush won; 2) Bush won the recount; 3) hand recounts are unacceptable, subjective and silly, even though Bush himself signed a 1997 Texas law stating that hand recounts are preferable to machine recounts.

Thus it was all the more shocking when Hagel told Matthews that he has "great confidence in local politicians."

"The way they're doing this, the Republicans and Democrats side by side -- any time you have a manual recount, you have to understand you're now getting into interpretation and intent," Hagel said. "That's a little dangerous, that's subjective, but that's part of the process."

Hagel insists that he never actually called for a full hand recount in the Sunshine State. "What I said was this: Going back to the legitimacy and the validation of the outcome, it may end up that a hand count of all 67 counties in Florida is the only way the country's going to get a true representation, and any kind of legitimate finality, in Florida."

"I'm not advocating it," he says, "but that is a very real possibility."

"Are there errors in that? Flaws in that? Yes, there are," he says. "The system is flawed. But you can't start playing that game." Democrats kick in with complaints "about the ballots that were thrown out, and yes, that's also true," he says. "Ballots have been thrown out since we started using ballots."

Both sides should take the rhetoric and the litigation frenzy down a notch, Hagel says. "In the long run, we're far better off to do that than just appear on TV and impugn the motives and actions of Vice President Gore."

Clearly, some on his side aren't taking his advice. Thursday evening, a number of Republican vote counters expected to provide that a fair and accurate hand recount was occurring in Palm Beach County simply didn't show up. And on Friday, two National Review writers wrote on the magazine's Web site, "Republicans should ... stop participating in the farce of the hand recount. Their presence does not do much to prevent abuse ... Their presence does, however, lend legitimacy to a process that they otherwise condemn. Indeed, it enables it: It would be illegal for the recount to proceed without the Republicans, and there's no law that says the Republicans have to participate."

I read the National Review editorial to Hagel and ask him what he thinks.

"I think that's exactly the wrong way to go," he says. "I don't think that's responsible. For no other reason, it does not advance any positive solution to resolving this problem. How does that make that issue better? How do we get closer to a legitimate, validated resolution to this problem? It doesn't, that kind of childish behavior."

"We have a higher responsibility to this country," Hagel says. "Plus, I don't think it's even a smart way to handle ourselves; we'll lose the P.R. part of this."

A Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart honoree, first elected to the Senate in 1996, Hagel says that one of the reasons his latest call for common sense and reason has been met with little public criticism is because he has been a Senate maverick for some time. "I am who I am, and I call it the way I see it," he says. He has butted heads with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., a number of times, even somewhat unrealistically threatening to run against the majority leader.

He says he knows "a lot of [his] friends aren't very happy" with what he's being saying on TV in the past week. And they weren't happy with him earlier in the year when he kept supporting his friend Sen. John McCain as the party closed ranks around Bush.

"McCain blasted a major trace for me through the jungle in this business," Hagel says, chuckling. "The standards are based on McCain's behavior. And anything less than what McCain says and does in the eyes of the Republican establishment gives me some leeway."

"I mean, after all, what are they going to do?" he asks. "Send me to Vietnam?"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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