Chuck Hagel, Israel, and the gays – oh my

So there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over the past few weeks as to whether former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) should be appointed our next Secretary of Defense.

The conservative Republican pro-Israel crowd has launched an all-out effort to block Hagel’s potential nomination, and an interesting sideshow has developed over Hagel’s comments on gay rights from about 13 years ago.  I want to take a moment to delve into the gay side of the Hagel nomination controversy.

Back in 1999, President Clinton recess appointed an openly gay man – our first openly gay ambassador, James Hormel – to be US ambassador to Luxembourg.  This was after five years of Republican threats to stop Hormel’s appointment because he was gay.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination with only Republican and conservative Senators Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft opposed. Three other Republicans, James Inhofe, Tim Hutchinson, and Robert C. Smith, with the urging of religious and social conservatives campaigned vigorously against Hormel’s nomination. Trent Lott, the Republican Majority Leader, worked to block the vote and publicly called homosexuality a sin and compared it toalcoholism and kleptomania. Christian-based conservative groups like the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) and the Family Research Council (FRC) publicly accused Hormel of being pro-pornography and anti-Catholic and the Senators presented those charges to derail the nomination. They asserted that Hormel would be rejected in the largely Catholic Luxembourg. To support the pornography allegation, a list of materials in the Hormel collection at the San Francisco Public Library was compiled by the TVC; it was later pointed out that the same works were also in the Library of Congress. The anti-Catholic allegation stemmed from a 1996 San Francisco Pride parade television interview where he was seen laughing at the same time the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group that pokes fun at religious conventions, walked by. The Catholic League opposed his nomination because of his “embrace” of the Sisters which the League considers an anti-Catholic group. Although it was unclear why he was laughing, Christian right conservative group FRC distributed video tapes to the entire Senate of the brief event.

Concerns about Hormel’s reception in Luxembourg were “blunted when officials of the country, which has laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation, indicated that he would be welcome.” Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York found the obstruction of the nomination an embarrassment and urged that Trent Lott bring the issue up for a vote. When Lott continued to stall, Clinton employed a recess appointment in May 1999. Hormel was sworn in as ambassador in June 1999.

One of those Republican anti-gay bigots was a senator by the name of Chuck Hagel.

The Omaha World-Herald reported in 1998: “Ambassadorial posts are sensitive, Hagel explained. ‘They are representing America,’ he said [in an interview]. ‘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’s line about Hormel being “openly aggressively gay” reminds one of Jesse Helm’s earlier attack on openly-gay HUD appointee, Roberta Achtenberg, as a “militant activist lesbian.”

These were the standard conservative tropes flung at gay nominees during that era. If anyone knew you were gay, and if you weren’t mortally ashamed of being gay, Republicans tended to call you an “activist,” “militant,” or in the case of Hagel, “aggressive.”

So Hagel’s comments were at the far fringe of nasty for the day.

Fast forward to 2012.  About a week ago, the Human Rights Campaign, our largest gay rights group in the US, rightly issued a warning shot about Hagel’s potential nomination:

“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,” Griffin said in a statement. “For him to be an appropriate candidate for any Administration post, he must repudiate his comments about Ambassador Hormel.  Additionally, the next Secretary of Defense must be supportive of open service as well as equal benefits for lesbian and gay military families and Senator Hagel must address these issues immediately.”

Shortly thereafter, Hagel issued an apology, of sorts, for his attack on Hormel.

“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.”

Hormel, understandably, given the timing, questioned the sincerity of Hagel’s apology:

“I have not received an apology,” Hormel, who is a major figure in Democratic politics, told me. “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.”

It seems whoever was shepherding Hagel’s not-yet-a-nomination hadn’t bothered checking in Hormel himself.  A few hours later, Hormel changed his tune:

Senator Hagel’s apology is significant–I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything. While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal–they are a clear apology. 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.

Several observers, myself included, surmised that Hormel had gotten a call from someone high up urging him to back off (my suspicion is that he got a call from both Hagel and a senior administration official, possibly Biden).  So Hormel backed off, though his statement was somewhat begrudging.

All the while, the right-wing pro-Israel crew has been frothing at the mouth over Hagel’s appointment.  (And I say this as someone who tends to be more supportive of Israel than the other side in these battles.  Still, I don’t like it when I sense that Israel’s supporters are being too heavy-handed.  Yes, Israel’s national security matters.  And so does America’s.  And the two, like any two policies, aren’t always 100% on the same page.)

Then, a funny thing happened.  Suddenly, the largest gay Republican group, Log Cabin Republicans, weighs in with a whopping full-page New York Times ad, taking Hagel on over his former gay rights views, but also his views on Israel, which is not a gay rights issue at all.

Log Cabin Republicans' ad against Chuck Hagel in the NYT.

Log Cabin Republicans’ ad against Chuck Hagel in the NYT.

Log Cabin’s hugely expensive ad, for an organization that doesn’t have a huge budget, raises the question of just who paid for this ad:  Was it someone with an interest in gay rights at all, and did Log Cabin benefit financially from publishing this ad?  I ask, because we had a recent experience with a gay rights group, GLAAD, that got involved in a non-gay issue – the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger – apparently at the behest of AT&T, and not because there was any true gay rights angle to the issue at all.  A similar story played out when the NGLTF was caught sending mailers tying marriage in Maryland and gaming, paid for by pro-gambling interests.

In the case of Hagel, there’s an obvious gay rights angle.  The implementation of the repeal of Dont Ask, Don’t Tell is not without its hiccups, so having a secretary who isn’t a homophobe is key to successful implementation of the policy.   But still, Log Cabin’s invocation of Israel (and Iran) in its hugely expensive NYT ad raises the legitimate question of whether a similar non-gay quid pro quo is taking place here as well.

Again, I think concerns about Hagel are justified.  His mea culpa is welcome, though insufficient.  Hagel’s comments in 1999 weren’t just “insensitive,” they were bigoted to the level of Jess Helms.  As for “the totality” of Hagel’s record, I’m unaware of Hagel being a serious gay rights advocate in the totality of his record, but-for the Hormel comments. I think whoever crafted Hagel’s apology didn’t do a sufficiently good job with it.  But I still question Log Cabin’s motives.  It takes a heck of a lot to get a gay Republican group to turn on any Republican – and being anti-gay is hardly a disqualifier in gay Republican circles.  Log Cabin had no problem supporting another Hormel detractor, John Ashcroft, when he was nominated to be George Bush’s attorney general.

From the NYT, circa 2001:

A prominent gay philanthropist who is the former American ambassador to Luxembourg, James C. Hormel, said today that Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft misled the Senate Judiciary Committee last week about his involvement in an effort to block Mr. Hormel’s ambassadorial appointment.

Mr. Hormel said he had concluded that Mr. Ashcroft had opposed him because he is openly gay, even though Mr. Ashcroft testified last week that Mr. Hormel’s sexual orientation was not the reason for his opposition. At the hearing Mr. Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri, said Mr. Hormel was unsuitable for the job based on the ”totality of the record.”

Republicans quickly mobilized to respond to the criticism from Mr. Hormel and leading gay rights advocates. In a statement to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, Mr. Ashcroft said, ”I will vigorously enforce the nondiscrimination policies of the Department of Justice which protect gay employees.”

And Hormel had serious concerns about Ashcroft’s nomination, but Hormel’s concerns didn’t seem to concern Log Cabin that time around.

Log Cabin also eventually supported Mitt Romney’s candidacy when Romney backtracked on nearly every commitment he’d ever made on gay equality.

So when I see Log Cabin, in a hugely expensive ad campaign, suddenly getting holier-than-thou about anti-gay prejudice issuing forth from a Republican a good 13 years ago, and it’s wrapped, oddly, in language about Israel and Iran, I smell a neo-conservative, who doesn’t give a lick about gay rights, somewhere in the vicinity.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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