WASHINGTON — With luminaries ranging from Vice President Joe Biden to television game show host Alex Trebek in the audience, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel poked a bit of fun at himself and his bruising Senate confirmation hearing during a formal swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Pausing for the applause after his introduction, Hagel told the crowd that, "this kind of warm welcome — the last time I received something quite like this was in the United States Senate in my confirmation hearing. I'm a better person for it."
During his confirmation hearing, Hagel faced fierce opposition from GOP senators who challenged the former Republican senator's truthfulness and patriotism.
He joked Thursday that he doesn't have much skin left, and added that he appreciated President Barack Obama's support through it all, "when it wasn't easy to support me."
Hagel was sworn in Feb. 27 in a private ceremony. Thursday's gathering was more ceremonial and came in front of a packed audience of former Senate colleagues, top military commanders, congressional and Cabinet members and several men who served with Hagel and his brother in Vietnam.
Biden, who issued the oath of office to Hagel, recalled trips to the current war zones with Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, who also was in the audience, when all three were senators. Biden said that often while he and Kerry met with commanders on the front lines, Hagel often made a point to go out and talk to the troops.
Hagel is the only enlisted military member to become secretary of defense who never rose to an officer's rank.
In his remarks to the crowd, Hagel vowed to always do what is best for the men and women in uniform and their families. And he said that these days of challenges and security threats present a unique and critical time in the nation's history.