By Annette Olsen - 06/11/08 06:44 PM EDT
Two senators who hail from vastly different backgrounds have formed an unlikely friendship.
Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) do not have much in common, other than the fact that they have both expressed interest in becoming commander in chief. The American Conservative Union gives Biden a lifetime rating of 13, while Hagel registers an 85.
In the late 1960s, Biden graduated from law school and began working as a trial attorney, while Hagel was serving in Vietnam with his brother.
Years later, they would meet and become fast friends.
“If he and I grew up in the same neighborhood, we would have been friends since we were kids, because we share the same kind of basic value set,” Biden said. “In my neighborhood a promise made is a promise kept … and that’s Hagel.”
As soon as they started moving around in the same “neighborhood” — in this case, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — their friendship blossomed along with their working relationship. Their travels together abroad have brought them closer.
One of the more memorable trips was when the senators visited northern Iraq and Kurdistan in December 2002 — a few months before the invasion of Iraq. The two senators, who voted in favor of the Iraq war that they now oppose, were in a car together all the way from the Turkish border through the mountains of Kurdistan to Erbil in central Kurdistan where they were scheduled to speak to the Kurdistan Parliament.
“I think we are the only ones — foreigners — that have ever been asked to do that,” Hagel said.
Biden looks back at the trip as “not so much dangerous, but tricky.”
He explains how the Turkish border guards at first did not want to let them come through Turkey. Eventually, however, the Turks decided to escort the senators all the way to the border of Kurdistan — an 8-to-10-hour drive — to personally hand them over to the Kurds.
Asked what the duo did in the mountainous area surrounded by armed foreign guards, Biden said, “We each had a cell phone, and we both spontaneously found that we were checking what time it was back home for both to call on our mothers. I looked at [Sen. Hagel] and we started laughing. Here we are, grown men, and yet we still call Mom to see how Mom is.”
Hagel’s mother passed away shortly thereafter. Biden’s mother is 92 years old.
“I know it sounds stupid and corny,” Biden said. “but I have such a comfort zone with the guy.”
There are others senators who have formed strong friendships across the aisle. Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) are very close — so close, in fact, that they contribute to each other’s campaign accounts.
But bipartisan companions in Congress are rare, especially in a politically charged year where members are spending much of their time back home campaigning.
In February, a helicopter transporting Hagel, Biden and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) made an emergency landing during a snowstorm in Afghanistan.
“Each time you are out in situations that can get a little uncomfortable, it is always a reassurance that you are with [people] that you trust in your life and that you have a friendship with,” Hagel said.
Hagel last Halloween played a prank on Biden during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, sporting a mask and wearing a “Biden for President” T-shirt.
Biden’s bid for the presidency fell short, while Hagel, who is retiring from the Senate, opted not to mount a bid.