The question on the floor is whether an offensively stupid remark that is now fourteen years old, made by a man who was at the time a member of the United States Senate, is now something that can be apologized for and subsequently disregarded.
In 1998, Chuck Hagel, then less than two years into the first of his two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, opposed then-President Clinton’s nomination of James C. Hormel to the ambassadorship of Luxembourg. Mr. Hormel’s previous nomination to the ambassadorship to Fiji was withdrawn after it became clear that Fiji would not exempt him from enforcement of its laws criminalizing male homosexual acts.
About a year and a half after the Fiji proposal, President Clinton floated the Luxembourg position for Hormel, and then-Senator Hagel said the words which today haunt him:
[Ambassadors] 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.
This statement is hugely offensive, of course, especially coming from someone as openly, aggressively heterosexual as Senator Hagel. It was considered offensive then (or should have been) and is certainly ought to be considered beyond the boundaries of an acceptable reason to oppose a political appointment today. I could see not sending Mr. Hormel to Fiji, though, but that’s a question of Mr. Hormel’s ability to represent American values but rather a question of not wanting to stick a thumb in the eye of Fiji’s lawmakers for… (I’ll be diplomatic, since we’re talking about diplomats here) ..for adopting laws with which we disagree.
Senator Hagel has since retracted his remarks and now says:
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 L.G.B.T. Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to L.G.B.T. military families.
Why does he say this now? In no small part because President Obama is seriously considering appointing Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense,* and this is about the only thing standing in between the idea and the appointment.
I’m unpersuaded by the idea that gay rights activists are putting Hagel on the spot here. This issue is several days old, Hagel has had time to consider his response, and his remarks, even though they are not recent, do call for an apology. One question we might ask is whether the apology is sufficient. But for me, the issue lies elsewhere than that.
A persuasive part of Hagel’s appeal for approval is that his original offensive remarks were made fourteen years ago. It seems entirely possible to me that in that period of time, Hagel could certainly have had a change of heart about the ability of gay Americans to ably and creditably represent our nation. As I will repeatedly argue, there ought to be room in our culture and our politics for people to do this.
The part that I’m not at all sure I like is Hagel’s reference to “the totality of my public record.” To be sure, he has gay friends. But I don’t think the record is particularly kind to the Nebraska Republican on the issue of treating gays as equals.
I’d call that record “mixed, at best.” In 1999, he was against repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, saying that the military was not an appropriate place to conduct a “social experiment.” (He was not yet serving in Congress when that law was adopted.) His reversal on that position and avowed commitment to allowing gays to serve openly in the military is of quite fresh vintage. He twice voted against including sexual orientation as a basis for “hate crime” penalty enhancements. The Human Rights Commission, a gay rights advocacy organization, gave Hagel a 0% rating in 2006, meaning that on issues they cared about, he voted contrary to their preferred position every time. He was not a member of the Senate when it passed the Defense of Marriage Act but IIRC he campaigned for Senate as being in favor of it. In 2004, he voted to send a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage out to the states for ratification.
However, in 2006, he expressed his own opposition to a Constitutional amendment limiting marriage to opposite-sex partners. This is the first and only position I can identify on Hagel’s part as a public official in which he adopted a pro-gay rights position.
Now, Hagel has been largely acquitted of claims that he is an anti-Semite apparently founded on the idea that he had been critical of lobbyists advocating for various kinds of pro-Israel policies. His record has been scoured and examined on that point and he came out looking good, to all but the most committed of partisans.
And maybe there is a record out there which my cursory look found, which can counteract what looks to be a mostly anti-gay rights record. I didn’t find it on my own; Hagel’s defenders are welcome to point me to places I’ve missed.
So. Is the apology he made for his remarks about Ambassador Hormel fourteen years ago sufficient? In the most important ways, I’m not in the aggrieved class, so I lack standing to answer that question. But in a different sense, I do have standing to decide if I have confidence in Hagel being Secretary of Defense. I’ll take his representation of his current positions at face value; let’s stipulate that, at least as of today, there is no bigotry or prejudice in the man.
What bugs me is that Hagel’s ”apology” is laced with righteous revisionism. He makes it a point to stand on his public record. Something tells me that Hagel’s reaction is phrased the way it is because he feels a need to reflect constancy of personal belief, and he feels a need to avoid an admission of ever having been wrong. So he points to his legislative record, which is not the record which would have been made by an actual friend to gay rights. Worse, he now calls his record favorable to gay rights, something which my investigation suggests it is not.
More likely, though, Hagel he changed his mind about gays and their role in our culture some time between 2004 and 2006. Maybe he’s really changed his mind between 1998 and today. That’s totally possible. And that’s great if he did. If it is the case, then he should just say so.
If that’s right, Hagel is not to blame; he is not the author of a political culture in which changing one’s mind, reversing position, and worst of all, admitting that you’ve done that is thought of as doing something embarrassing or wrong. Such an attitude is a deeply undesirable facet of our culture. People, including people in politics, ought to have enough breathing room to change their minds and grow.
If you changed your mind about gay people, Senator, that’s okay. Frankly, I’d like it a lot better if you were forthright about that.
* “But Chuck Hagel is a Republican,” you’re objecting. Yep. But he was also one of the Republicans who turned on George W. Bush in the middle of the Iraq war, deciding that Bush’s policies pursuing war in Iraq has gone off the rails.