President Obama’s leading choice to head the Pentagon, former senator Chuck Hagel, issued an apology Friday for “insensitive” comments he had made about gays, moving to shield his potential nomination from a growing chorus of criticism.

Hagel’s apology came a day after the country’s leading gay rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, described the Nebraska Republican’s past statements and record as “unacceptable.”

The flash point was a 1998 statement opposing the nomination of a gay philanthropist, James Hormel, to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel said at the time that an “openly aggressively gay” diplomat might be an ineffective representative of American values.

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said in a written statement issued by his office Friday. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.

“I am fully supportive of ‘open service,’ ” he added, “and committed to LGBT military families.”

Chad Griffin, the HRC’s president and a top fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign, said Hagel’s apology was appreciated and demonstrated “just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues.”

Hagel’s statement did not address complaints from some pro-Israel activists that he was not sufficiently supportive of the Jewish state during his 12 years in office.

Many conservatives, citing that record and his opposition to former president George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, have expressed concern about a Hagel nomination.

On Friday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post he intended to oppose Hagel should he get the nod because of a number of positions he has taken.

Gay rights advocates had expressed concern about Hagel in part because the next defense secretary will have to continue the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on openly gay service members.

White House aides in recent days had placed calls to advocates reassuring them that any Defense Department nominee would abide by Obama’s principles on gay rights issues.

A former Hagel aide noted Friday that he did not vote against Hormel’s nomination and is on record opposing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Hagel received support Friday from a group of former generals and admirals, including Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who was a top national security adviser to presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush.

“Senator Hagel has stood up for what he believes are the best interests of the United States for many years, regardless of party or politics,” the group wrote. The letter called Hagel a “voice of moderation and balance in an unbalanced time.”