WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel's potential nomination to the Cabinet suffered a fresh setback Thursday as a major gay-rights organization questioned his previous comments and votes.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that Hagel's comments in a 1998 World-Herald story and his “consistent anti-LGBT” record” in the Senate raise serious questions about where he stands today.
Gay-rights groups said comments by Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, cast doubt on his ability to implement the repeal of the U.S. military’s ban on openly gay people from serving in the armed forces. In 1999, he said he opposed repealing the ban, telling the New York Times that “the U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.”
“The next secretary of defense must be supportive of open service as well as equal benefits for lesbian and gay military families, and Sen. Hagel must address these issues immediately,” Griffin said. “Whomever is selected to be the next secretary ... needs to understand there are clear expectations for progress.”
Specifically, the group said Hagel must repudiate remarks he made to The World-Herald about James Hormel, then President Bill Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg.
Hagel said at the time that ambassadorial posts are sensitive.
“They are representing America,” Hagel said then. “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 said in the article that he had a good chat with Hormel and described him as a “nice fellow.” The GOP senator also made clear that he was not opposed to appointing a gay ambassador.
He and others took issue with Hormel’s openness and advocacy on gay-rights issues.
Hagel pointed to a documentary film that Hormel helped fund that showed teachers how they could teach children about homosexuality. Hagel also cited a separate clip showing Hormel at what Hagel described as an anti-Catholic event in San Francisco that featured a group of drag queens known as the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.”
“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel said at the time, citing the majority status of Catholics in Luxembourg. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”
Hagel defenders today point out that the senator did not stand in the way of Hormel’s appointment advancing through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he was a member.
Nor did Hagel organize opposition to Hormel. Hagel never had a chance to vote up or down on the Senate floor because the Republican leadership never allowed a vote. Clinton ultimately gave Hormel the job through a recess appointment.
Deb Fiddelke, who was Hagel’s communications director in 1998, came to Hagel’s defense on Thursday.
“Any group can take any quote out of context and try and create a larger issue and because of the situation, Sen. Hagel can’t speak back right now and defend himself,” Fiddelke told The World-Herald. “When I worked for him, I saw him treat everybody, regardless of their background, with fairness.”
Hagel in 2005 opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
“I’m a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important,” he said. “I don’t think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage.
“That’s a state issue.”
In fact, that quote was featured on the website of the organization that criticized Hagel on Thursday, the Human Rights Campaign.
Still, gay-rights activists could take issue with Hagel’s past opposition to gay marriage. He said in 1996 that he would have voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and supported Nebraska’s state-level ban on gay marriage, which passed overwhelmingly in 2000.
Griffin’s concerns about Hagel could influence President Barack Obama. Griffin is a well-connected Hollywood political consultant who has led the Human Rights Campaign since summer. He was among Obama’s top fundraisers before taking the group’s helm, raising more than $500,000 for the president’s re-election.
Griffin was instrumental in recruiting the legal team of Theodore Olson and David Boies, who successfully challenged the ban on same-sex marriage in California, a case now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hagel is considered a top candidate to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, although a number of senators have expressed reservations about the possible nomination. Their concerns center on Hagel’s past comments about Israel and Iran. Outside groups have suggested that, based on Hagel’s remarks, he isn’t sufficiently supportive of Israel.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended Hagel during his daily briefing Thursday.
“We have made no personnel announcements, and I’m not going to engage in that,” Carney said. “What I can tell you is that Sen. Hagel fought and bled for his country. He served his country well. He was an excellent senator.”
Nominees typically are told to keep a low profile and not to engage with the press until they have been confirmed. A reporter at the briefing noted that Hagel is just the latest person to come under intense criticism before being officially nominated.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was heavily criticized as a potential nominee for secretary of state, a post now expected to go to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Does the White House have an obligation to provide defense for people in that situation?
“I’m not aware of an obligation to do anything beyond what we’ve been doing,” Carney said, “which is ... in the case of Sen. Hagel, who has served admirably both in uniform and as a senator, to make clear our views on that.”
World-Herald staff writer Roseann Moring contributed to this report, which includes material from World-Herald press services.