A few days ago there was speculation that President Obama would introduce two Cabinet nominees last week -- Sen. John Kerry for secretary of State and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for secretary of Defense. But Kerry stood alone with Obama on Friday. Does that mean that the president is caving to criticism of Hagel from supporters of Israel and, more recently, from gay-rights supporters offended by comments Hagel made in 1998 about a gay nominee for an ambassadorship?
Not necessarily. On Friday Hagel apologized for expressing concern in 1998 that James Hormel, President Clinton’s choice to be ambassador to Luxembourg, was “openly, aggressively gay.”
“My remarks 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said. “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.”
Gay-rights groups seem to be mollified. A report in BuzzFeed quoted the Human Rights Campaign as welcoming Hagel’s statement. "Sen. Hagel's apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows 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,” said Chad Griffin, HRC’s president. "Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we're proud that Sen. Hagel is one of them.”
Given the role of the secretary of Defense in overseeing a post-“don’t ask, don’t tell” military, Hagel’s apology was the that minimum gay-rights supporters could expect. We can hope that it’s not just politic but sincere. As Griffin said, mainstream opinion on gay issues has changed dramatically in recent years.
Hagel’s comments about gays were arguably more offensive than the remarks that have led some critics to portray him as anti-Israel if not anti-Semitic. Hagel’s comment that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” was inaccurate (not all advocates for Israel are Jewish), but it wasn’t anti-Semitic. The phrase “openly, aggressively gay” was a slur pure and simple. Hagel’s apology for it seems to have eliminated one roadblock in the way of his appointment.