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Chuck Hagel, defense secretary candidate, backs off 1998 gay comments

President Obama meets with former Sen. Chuck Hagel

President Obama meets with former Sen. Chuck Hagel in the Cabinet Room of the White House in this file photo. (Oct. 29, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel apologized for remarks he once made about the prospect of a gay U.S. ambassador, breaking his silence over criticism of his possible nomination as defense secretary.

Hagel apologized Friday for comments in 1998 questioning whether an “openly, aggressively gay” person such as James Hormel could properly represent the U.S. abroad. President Bill Clinton later named Hormel ambassador to Luxembourg when the Senate was in recess because of opposition to making him an envoy.

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said in a statement. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel” and anyone in the gay community “who may question my commitment to their civil rights.” He said he also supports allowing gay Americans to serve openly in the military, which he once opposed.

Hagel, 66, is among candidates President Barack Obama has been considering to replace the departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, White House officials have said on condition of anonymity in advance of a decision. Obama announced Friday that he will nominate Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, as secretary of state without offering any comment about who will head the Pentagon.

Opponents of nominating Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, have cited a number of his past comments, from opposition to the troop surge in the Iraq war to a reference he once made to the influence of the “Jewish lobby” that supports Israel.

‘Unacceptable Comments’

While Hagel has left it to allies and supporters to rebut those criticisms, he commented on gay issues in response to the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group in Washington. Gay organizations have been among Obama’s biggest supporters and campaign contributors.

“Senator Hagel’s unacceptable comments about gay people, coupled with his consistent anti-LGBT record in Congress, raise serious questions about where he stands on LGBT equality today,” Chad Griffin, the group’s president said in a statement. “For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments” about Hormel and support “equal benefits for lesbian and gay military families.”

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, continued to attract criticism by former Senate colleagues over his past positions on foreign policy and military intervention.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is slated to become the No. 2 Republican leader in January, said Friday that he will oppose Hagel if Obama nominates him, according to Scott Gosnell, a Cornyn spokesman. Cornyn made the comment in an interview with Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.

‘Pro-Israel Lobby’

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Friday that Hagel would face tough questioning in a Senate confirmation hearing.

“I’ve known Senator Hagel for many years,” McCain, a Vietnam veteran, told reporters. “I appreciate also his service in Vietnam. I am concerned about many of the comments that he made, and has made, like reference to a, quote, Jewish lobby, which I don’t think exists. I think a pro-Israel lobby exists. And I think many of those comments and other positions he has taken will be the subject of the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

Asked Dec. 20 about the opposition to Hagel, White House press Secretary Jay Carney said the former senator “has been a remarkable servant to this country” and cited the two Purple Hearts he was awarded for his service in Vietnam. Carney declined to comment about potential administration appointees.

‘Cheap Smear’

Hagel’s supporters have sought to rebut criticism, saying his past statements are being overblown or taken out of context.

“Chuck Hagel’s knowledge, experience and relationships in this region, including Israel, outclass his critics,” Andrew Parasiliti, who served as Hagel’s foreign-policy adviser from 2001 to 2005, said this week in an e-mailed statement. “To tag him as ‘anti-Israel’ is simply wrong and a cheap smear.”

Hagel irked members of President George W. Bush’s administration and some fellow Republicans by opposing the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007. Hagel argued the administration lacked a coherent strategy and was inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

Asked whether he would support Hagel, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican said, “I like him personally, so the odds are that I will. But like everybody else, I’m waiting to see what happens.”

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said he “has deep concerns about some of the things he’s said about Cuba and Cuba policy. I’m equally troubled by some of the things he’s said about Israel.”

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