December 21, 2012

Nati Harnik, AP

Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense ran into trouble the other day when it emerged that he’d described a nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg as “openly aggressively gay,” and called that an “inhibiting factor” to “do an effective job.”

Today, with gay groups mobilizing, Hagel apologized in a statement to Politico, in an apparent bid to keep his nomination alive.

But in an interview this afternoon, the target of the 1998 slur, leading gay philanthropist James Hormel, told me he never received an apology from Hagel himself, questioned the sincerity of the apology, and said the incident should still raise questions about whether Hagel is the right man to oversee the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell.

“I have not received an apology,” Hormel, who is a major figure in Democratic politics, told me. “I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received, but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part.” Hormel added that the apology appeared to have been given “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.”

In 1998, Hagel told the Omaha World Herald: “Ambassadorial posts are sensitive. They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyles, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do a better job.”

Hagel, as Buzzfeed noted, was also a longtime supporter of don’t ask don’t tell, and even told the New York Times in 1999: “The armed forces aren’t some social experiment.” Gay rights groups have been criticizing the choice. In his apology to Politico, Hagel acknowledge that his comments were “insensitive,” apologized to the LGBT community, and affirmed his commitment to their civil rights.

But Hormel told me that Hagel’s comments — and the nature of his apology — raise questions as to whether he’s the right guy to ensure that “the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell is fully implemented as quickly as possible in ways that will have the least deleterious effect.”

Of Hagel’s comment, Hormel added: “If it were made today, it would be clearly disqualifying.”

UPDATE: Hormel has put out a statement:

Senator Hagel’s apology is significant–I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything. While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal–they are a clear apology. Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too. His action affords new stature to the LGBT constituency, whose members still are treated as second class citizens in innumerable ways. Senator Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families. If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.