Former Nebraska Sens. Chuck Hagel and Bob Kerrey looked ahead with optimism Monday while decrying the current state of American politics and the sharp divisions it has created and is actively nurturing today.

An overflow crowd attended the joint appearance of the two former senators at the University of Nebraska's Innovation Campus.

There also was an elephant in the room.

Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran who served as secretary of defense following his years in the Senate, and Kerrey, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, often referred to the divisive policies, tactics and personal behavior of President Donald Trump without calling him by name.

Only toward the end of the 90-minute presentation did they speak the president's name in describing his role in today's political warfare.

"But I don't believe President Trump is the cause," Hagel said. "He was the consequence."

And it's not just the president, both men agreed, but also a Congress that has turned hyperpartisan, shaping a different kind of Senate than the one they served in.

Kerrey is a Democrat and Hagel is a Republican.

When Hagel arrived in the Senate, Kerrey already was there and "he suggested that the two of us sit down and go over a list of issues we could agree on," Hagel recalled.

"We were there to serve the interests of the people we represent," he said. "And that bonded the two of us."

That kind of bipartisan cooperation and compromise does not exist today, both former senators said.

Without naming Trump, Kerrey said social media is used now to vilify your opponents and call them names.

"We are not seeing the leadership required in our country," Hagel said.

"Our country is better than the world is seeing today.

"Leaders unify; they don't divide," Hagel said.

"And there is no higher responsibility for a leader than being a role model," he said, "a role model you want your children to look up to."

"If you see something that is substandard and don't do anything about it, that's the new standard," Kerrey said.

But there also has been a decline in the Senate in terms of comity and leadership, both former senators said. And the "unlimited, unaccountable flow of dark money" has been a corrosive factor, Hagel said.

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Both former senators say they can see a brighter future and largely because younger Americans will make it so.

"We're in that swamp today," Hagel said, "but we're going to be OK. I think that change is coming."

It was "the idealism of young people" that led to civil rights legislation and an end to the war in Vietnam, he said.

"As bad as it is today," Kerrey said, "it's been worse ... unquestionably worse."

"We're going to see an exciting group of younger people this election," he said.

"It's a whole lot easier to get up in the morning if you're hopeful," Hagel said.

The joint appearance was sponsored by UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources as the Heuermann Lecture.

Hagel, the Republican, will move on to North Dakota on Tuesday to campaign for embattled Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is seeking re-election and facing an uphill challenge.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.


Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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