Can Hagel’s anti-gay career just be shrugged away?
December 27th, 2012
It has long been tradition for Presidents to reward supporters and activists with an ambassadorship post to a friendly and strategically non-controversial nation. And so, in 1998, President Clinton nominated James Hormel, a philanthropist and Democratic Party activist, to be the US Ambassador to Luxembourg, a nation about the size of Connecticut and with the population of Tuscon.
But one small problem, James Hormel is gay. And so the usual suspects raised a ruckus, spittle flew, and homophobia stopped its ugly feet all over the place. The Family Research Council and the Catholic League found him simply unacceptable for a Catholic Country and Trent Lott (R-MS), the Senate Majority Leader blocked the nomination.
Luxembourg weighed in saying that they have laws which prohibit anti-gay discrimination in employment (a polite way of saying “we think you’re being asses”) and that Hormel would be welcome. And eventually, in May 1999, Clinton used a recess appointment to put him in the post. As best we can tell, the Ambassador wore the right clothes to all the right dinners and our relationship with the Duchy of Luxembourg survived the ordeal.
But these little events can often be useful. They can give you the measure of a person’s character and the considerations they include in their decision making. And they can have long long legs and former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NB) is learning just how long.
While some Senators questioned Hormel’s positions, in 1998, Hagel was one of those who opposed Hormel solely on the basis of his orientation. He believed that this, and this alone, was enough to disqualify Hormel from representing the United States in the tiny European nation. Because, you see, ambassador posts are “sensitive”.
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.
Not that he’d oppose all gay ambassadors, you see. No nothing like that. But this is a Catholic country.
I want to be fair to Hagel and he does not have a completely anti-gay record. Along with John McCain, Hagel opposed the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment in 2005 (and I thank him for that):
I’m a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don’t think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That’s a state issue.
But, for the most part, Hagel has politely and ever-so-nicely opposed every concession towards equality or protection that the gay community has requested. Not out of animus (no, no, assuredly not), but there was always some reason, some explanation why this time gay people had to go without.
And, of course, Hagel is happy to move with the tail end of progress. And the idea of denying an ambassadorship to a qualified candidate based on his or her orientation has been a non-starter since George W. Bush’s appointment of Michael Guest to Romania in 2001.
So, now that he’s in consideration for the role of Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel rushed to offer a 14 years stale apology:
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.
And those ideologically aligned with the administration have been quick to say, “good enough for me”. The New Yorker called objections to Hagel an “ugly attack” and MSNBC assured us that it was all a long time ago in a different era. And even James Hormel – after describing it as insincere – “accepted” the apology.
Even the Human Rights Campaign decided that this apology illustrates “a change of heart on LGBT issues” and declared Hagel a new ally in our ranks.
But I just can’t get my feet to do the Hagel dance.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big believer in redemption. I’m first in line to applaud those who wish to repudiate former beliefs and to atone. I am generous in my welcome and effusive in my congratulations to those who have a change of heart.
But I’m not seeing a change of heart. I see an apology for a few words driven by political expediency.
You see, I happen to disagree with Chuck Hagel. I think that his 1998 statement actually does reflect his views and the totality of his public record.
This is not a man who is repudiating his record. He’s not suggesting that any of his votes should have gone differently. This is not a situation of atonement and redemption. He’s just apologizing because his comments were “insensitive”.
But my measure of Hagel’s ability to fairly include gay civil servants and gay service people as Secretary of Defense is not based on comments made 14 years ago – or on this week’s apology. It is based on a career of votes that suggests to me that Chuck Hagel sees himself as a polite and kind man who holds no animus but who, when decisions are made, always has a reason why gay people cannot be treated equally.
And that is how I think he would be as Secretary of Defense.