Hagel’s Mea Culpa On Gay Rights

12.21.12 10:30 PM ET

Former senator Chuck Hagel, the Obama administration’s presumed favorite for Secretary of Defense, has come under attack again. This time, it’s not because of his record on Israel, Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah—it’s because of his record on gay rights.

The Human Rights Campaign and other gay rights groups criticized Hagel on Thursday for comments he made 14 years ago about James C. Hormel, whom President Clinton had nominated to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg. Here’s what Hagel had to say back then about gay ambassadorial nominees: “They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay—openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel—to do an effective job.”

Hagel’s remarks are troubling for obvious, entangled, reasons. First there’s the suggestion that being gay inherently contradicts American values. Then there’s the idea that some people are too gay—as in, “aggressively” so—making them too threatening to serve as representatives of their country. Finally, there’s the fact that, if Hagel is appointed Secretary of Defense, he will have to implement the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which barred openly gay people from serving in the military. In 1999, Hagel opposed repealing this law, stating that “the U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.”

But today, Hagel responded to the new round of criticism by issuing a statement retracting his remarks about Hormel’s nomination: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”

While the Human Rights Campaign commended Hagel for this apology—because, you know, better late than never—the retraction is still likely to rankle with some gay rights activists, as it did with Hormel himself. For one thing, characterizing such comments as “insensitive” grossly understates the case: As some quipped on Twitter, the comments were in fact “openly, aggressively insensitive.” What’s more, Hagel needs to make clear not only that he believes in “open service,” but that he no longer believes it’s an “inhibiting factor” to be gay. The retraction shied away from that assertion—and it shied away, too, from expressing clear and unequivocal support for LGBT rights writ large. After all, apologizing to “any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights” does not quite equal saying you support same.

So, if Hagel was hoping that today’s statement would be enough to appease gay Americans—whose financial backing was crucial to Obama’s reelection campaign this year—he may still have another thing coming.

In Hagel’s defense, it’s worth noting—as senior White House aides have taken pains to do—that if Hagel is appointed, he will have to “live up to the principles” that Obama has established concerning gay rights. Gay rights groups, though understandably concerned about Hagel’s ability to implement the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, must realize that a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts is, shall we say, unlikely to prove insubordinate.

Yes, Hagel needs to do a better job of answering for his 1998 and 1999 comments. Yes, he’d need to be vigorously questioned about them in confirmation, because—unlike what he thinks about the Israel lobby’s tactics on the Hill—his ability to view everyone in the military with equal regard actually has a bearing on his ability to effectively run the Pentagon. And yet, the Hagel nomination may not yet be dead in the water.

The reason why is right there in Hagel’s retraction: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record.” It is not hard to hear in this plaintive statement a wish, on Hagel’s part, that the American public would inspect the full breadth of his record and see that, on the whole, he’s stuck his neck out in some pretty progressive ways—his early opposition to the Iraq war being a prime example.

In choosing whom to nominate for Secretary of Defense, the president will have to rank a variety of considerations. It’s a complex moral and pragmatic calculus in which Hagel’s overwhelmingly positive record could easily outweigh a few highly problematic, but retracted, views. The fact remains that, despite being the straight old white guy, Hagel may still be the most progressive pick of the bunch.