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Topics In the News
Hagel Apologizes for Slurring James C. Hormel
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/21/12
Last updated on: 12/22/12
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Senator Chuck Hagel.

In response to criticism of his anti-gay record while U.S. Senator from 1996 to 2008, Chuck Hagel, who is under consideration for appointment as Secretary of Defense, has apologized for statements he made about former Ambassador James Hormel in 1998. When President Clinton nominated Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, Hagel described him as unfit to serve because he was "openly aggressively gay."

Coming under attack from glbtq groups for his anti-gay voting record in the Senate, his opposition to repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, and the slur against Hormel, Hagel issued an apology on December 21, 2012 for his remarks about Hormel and declared his support for open service by gay men and lesbians in the military.

As Mike Allen reports in Politico, Hagel said, "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."

The 1998 comments about Hormel came in an interview with the Omaha World Herald. "They are representing America," Hagel said of ambassadors. "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."

The treatment of James Hormel, a distinguished philanthropist and activist, by Republican Senators when he was nominated in October 1997 by President Clinton to become Ambassador to Luxembourg is a very ugly chapter in the history of homophobia.

Because of Hormel's excellent record, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination in November 1997 by a vote of sixteen to two, with only conservative Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and John Ashcroft of Missouri opposed. Although an estimated 60 of the 100 senators supported the appointment, three Republicans--James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, and Robert Smith of New Hampshire--launched a vigorous campaign against it.

Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi refused to take the necessary steps to bring the matter to a vote. In public remarks Lott called homosexuality a sin and compared it to alcoholism and kleptomania.

Abetted by conservative groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition, the dissenting senators charged that Hormel was pro-pornography and anti-Catholic and would not be accepted in largely Catholic Luxembourg.

Their evidence was ludicrously flimsy. In support of the pornography allegation, the senators offered a list compiled by the Traditional Values Coalition of materials in the Hormel collection at the San Francisco Public Library. Hormel had not selected any of the publications in question, many of which were also in the Library of Congress.

Opponents based the charge that Hormel was anti-Catholic on the fact that during an interview he had laughed at a joke about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of gay men who dress as nuns and adopt humorous names for their characters.

Republicans, including Hagel, were able to block confirmation of Hormel, but in May 1999, while the Senate was out of session for the Memorial Day holiday, President Clinton named Hormel ambassdor via a recess appointment.

Hormel was finally sworn in as ambassador on June 29, 1999 with Timothy Wu, his partner since 1995, holding the Bible at the ceremony. He served as ambassador through December 2000.

Although he was not the leader of the anti-gay cabal that attempted to derail Hormel's appointment, Hagel played a role in the ugly incident.

Hagel is believed to be the leading candidate to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. He has come under attack from neo-conservatives for his alleged anti-Israel views, but his nomination was generally welcomed by liberals until gay rights groups brought his anti-gay record and comments into the conversation.

On December 20, 2012, Mark Landler reported in the New York Times that gay rights groups have questioned Hagel's ability to implement the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. In 1999, Hagel said he opposed repealing the law, snidely remarking that "the U.S. armed forces aren't some social experiment."

Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said that for Hagel "to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments about Ambassador Hormel."

The Human Rights Campaign gave Hagel a rating of zero for most of his Senate career, though in 2006 he opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying that it was an issue best left to the states.

Chris Geidner reports at BuzzFeed that Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz said that "It is critically important that the new Secretary of Defense is supportive of open service, lesbian and gay military families, and the community as a whole. Whomever is selected to be the next Secretary of Defense needs to understand there are clear expectations for progress at DOD and that the President's views on key issues should be reflected by the Secretary."

Denis Dison, vice-president of communications of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, noted that times have changed since Hormel's nomination. "Today openly LGBT Americans serve throughout the three branches of the federal government, and at very high levels. Those who are still openly, aggressively anti-gay in 2012 probably won't be able to function very well in Washington."

Hormel himself responded to Hagel's apology in an interview with Greg Sargent in the Washington Post. Pointing out that Hagel had never apologized directly to him, Hormel expressed skepticism about the sincerity of the apology.

"I have not received an apology. 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."

On his Facebook page, however, Hormel was more conciliatory. He wrote, "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."

Some friends of Hagel have rushed to his defense. For example, former Senator Bob Kerrey said he thought the comment about Ambassador Hormel does not represent "the real Chuck Hagel. I think it's an anomaly."

Steve Clemons, openly gay editor-at-large of the Atlantic has, not very convincingly, described Hagel as "a staunch defender of gay rights." He contends that "Chuck Hagel will be strongly supportive of the gains of the LGBT community in our national life--and particularly in our military and intelligence services--if indeed, President Obama nominates this great strategic and military thinker to succeed Leon Panetta."

The problem with Clemons's defense of Hagel is that it relies almost entirely on the interaction he personally has had with the former Senator. Somewhat bizarrely, he blames gay rights groups for not having asked Hagel about his views in recent years, as though it is the responsibility of activists to make sure that bigots are still bigots.

Clemons fails to point out that Hagel has had ample opportunity to make public statements on his own. It is not as though gay issues, including the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, have not been featured prominently in mainstream news over the past few years. As a military analyst, Hagel's view of DADT would have been especially welcome in 2009 and 2010 as repeal efforts escalated, but he never bothered to say that his earlier views had changed or anything else about the policy or, indeed, about his ugly statements about Ambassador Hormel.

Yes, people do change. Opinions evolve. But aren't records also important?

Isn't it a bit suspicious that a prominent opponent of the repeal of DADT in 1999 remained silent about the policy during the critical years in which his opinion might have mattered? Clearly, if he had a strong commitment to equal rights in the military, he would have spoken out before now.

It is good that he has apologized for his anti-gay comments about a distinguished American and it is good to know that he is now on record as supportive of open service, but he certainly waited long enough to do so.

Whatever the virtues of Chuck Hagel may be, he is no profile in courage.

In the video below, James C. Hormel speaks of his struggle to become the first openly gay ambassador.

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