December 30, 2012 at 12:43 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Obama: Hagel’s 1998 anti-gay remarks don’t disqualify him for Cabinet role
President Obama said  Hagel's 1998 comments against Hormel don't disqualify him for the position as defense secretary (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama said Hagel’s 1998 comments against Hormel don’t disqualify him for the position as defense secretary (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama said over the weekend during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he won’t rule out the nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary over anti-gay remarks he made in 1998.

Asked by host David Gregory about Hagel’s now high-profile reference to then-nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel as “openly aggressively gay” — remarks for which Hagel has since apologized — Obama said he sees nothing in the former senator’s record that disqualifies him for the position.

“Not that I see,” Obama sad. “I served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He’s a patriot. He is somebody who’s done extraordinary work in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board doing an outstanding job.”

The 30-minute interview was taped on Saturday in the White House, but wasn’t broadcast on TV until Sunday morning.

Additionally, Obama commended Hagel for apologizing for the anti-gay comments. In a statement to media outlets earlier this month, Hagel apologized for the remarks and said he’s committed to LGBT military families. The apology was accepted by LGBT groups, such as the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN.

“And I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country,” Obama said. “That’s something that I’m very proud to have led, and I think the anybody who’s serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.”

Obama’s remarks about the “positive change” in the country’s attitude toward gays and lesbians echoes similar comments he made during his recent interview with Time Magazine where he also noted the change in perception on LGBT issues.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, echoed the sense Hagel’s remarks reflect the country’s evolution as a whole on LGBT issues.

“As the President pointed out, we’ve seen a tremendous shift in attitudes on LGBT issues and we’re glad that Senator Hagel apologized for his statement and expressed his commitment to LGBT civil rights,” Cole-Schwartz said. “No matter who is the next defense secretary, we expect that person to ensure equal benefits for all military families and to carry out the President’s policies.”

Hagel’s 1998 anti-gay comments to the Omaha World-Herald have received significant attention in recent weeks amid reports that Obama is considering Hagel for the position of defense secretary.

Just last week, the National Log Cabin Republicans ran a full-page ad in the New York Times in opposition to Hagel on the basis of those anti-gay remarks and his earlier stated views on Israel and Iran. Cooper didn’t immediately respond on Sunday to a request to comment on Obama’s remarks.

Initially, the apology also riled Hormel. Immediately after it was issued, Hormel questioned the sincerity of the apology in interviews with the Washington Post and the Blade. However, he seemed to reverse himself in a Facebook posting hours later.

Watch the video of Obama’s remarks about Hagel here:

Will Obama introduce an LGBT-inclusive immigration plan?

Obama made additional comments relevant to the LGBT community during his “Meet the Press” interview when he said he would introduce immigration reform language during the first year of his term, raising the question of whether that measure will be inclusive of bi-national same-sex couples.

“I’ve said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority,” Obama said. “I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done.”

LGBT advocates have seeking the passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would include language allowing gay Americans to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States. Standalone legislation that would achieve the same goal is known as the Uniting American Families Act.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said he hopes any immigration measure that Obama directs Congress to pass will include protections for bi-national same-sex couples, who are currently in danger of separation if the foreign national in the relationship loses their immigration status.

“I was encouraged to hear the President list a comprehensive immigration reform bill among his top priorities for the new year,” Ralls said. “His support, and endorsement of, an LGBT-inclusive bill will be critical, and we hope to hear him call on Congress for a bill that includes UAFA sooner, rather than later.”

A UAFA-inclusive immigration bill would be consistent with other measures put forth on comprehensive immigration reform plans, including the guidelines proposed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and earlier legislation introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Ralls said conservatives have expressed opposition to an LGBT-inclusive immigration reform package, but he expects the White House to hold firm against demands to omit UAFA from the final package.

“We know there are anti-gay, right-wing religious groups who have been meeting with lawmakers and threatening to oppose an immigration reform effort if it includes UAFA,” Ralls said. “Those groups have insinuated they would be willing to oppose legislation even if it includes numerous provisions we all agree on — such as the DREAM Act and a pathway to citizenship — if gay couples are also included. We expect the White House to stand firm with our families, and work for a bill that, from the very outset, includes UAFA.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Skeeter Sanders

    A person can change his or her viewpoint over time. Public opinion on marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples is certainly changing from just five years ago. So I would be remiss if I didn’t give former Senator Chuck Hagel the benefit of a doubt — for now.

    I’m an openly bi man — who first came out of the closet as gay in 1978 and as bi in 1993 — whose own views on marriage equality have done a complete 180-degree turn in the last 14 years. As recently as 1999, I was strongly opposed to the idea of gay and lesbian couples getting married — but not for the same reason the Religious Right opposed it.

    Back then, I took a “queer nationalist” position on the idea, denouncing it as a “sellout to the heterosexist patriarchy” and a “betrayal of what it means to be queer in a straight-dominated society.”

    What changed my mind?

    The sheer ferocity of the Religious Right’s crusade against it — a crusade that reminded me, as an African-American, of the even more ferocious opposition by white supremacists to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision that struck down laws in 16 states that barred interracial couples — including my African-American mother and American Indian father — from marrying and refused recognition of such marriages performed in states where they were already legal.

    That reminder prompted me to check myself. How could I — the son of interracial parents (who’s now in an interracial marriage of my own) — say “no” to gay and lesbian couples who love one another the same constitutionally protected right to marry that interracial, interfaith and binational couples have?

    If I can change my views on marriage equality, why can’t Senator Hagel change his?

  • brian

    President Obama’s attempt to paper over Hagel’s intentionally homophobic remarks to the World-Herald, attacking Ambassador Hormel for his sexual orientation, is a not-credible stretch for most LGBTs I suspect.

    Sure Hagel’s remarks were waay back in 1998. But a nakedly self-serving White House PR/ press-release apology– just a few weeks ago– rightly came off as insincere to many of us.

    No amount of clumsy hiney-covering by HRC and OutServe/SLDN makes it any better, BTW. Indeed, both organizations have lost credibility in this instance, too.

    Wouldn’t it have been far smarter for the WH to engage Ambassador Hormel directly at the start of this tortuous ‘trial baloon’ … with a REAL personal and public apology from Senator Hagel?

    How much better would it have been for both Senator Hagel’s and our president’s credibility to have Ambassador Hormel shaking hands with Hagel and personally endorsing him?

    Fact is this WH PR bungling continues to be disturbingly indicative of a stiff-arm, almost dismissive stance we’ve seen against LGBT people, interests and issues post-November.

    We need to keep drilling down past this new WH ‘spin’– and we need to keep demanding better of them.

    What did Chuck Hagel ever do on behalf of LGBT residents of Omaha, Lincoln or Grand Island after his attack on our first openly gay ambassador? Was Hagel truly a Senator who cared about his LGBT Nebraskans, too?

    Also– speaking of credibility– with the stroke of his pen, President Obama can, right now, end workplace anti-LGBT discrimination aided and abetted by the federal government he leads.

    When will you end federal contractor discrimination against LGBTs, Mr. President?

  • Surely U Jest

    What’s important here is that Hagel has publicly acknowledged that he “had” (or for that matter may still have) an anti-gay bias and understands the President’s expectations for how he is to execute his duties as Sec’y of Defense related to DADT.

    Do you think that every CEO of every corporation that has non-discrimation policies that protect their LGBT employees is not at all homophobic? Has every company that achieved a perfect score on the HRC Equality Index extricated every anti-gay bias or attitude from its leadership ranks? In 2002, only 13 businesses achieved a perfect score. Now there are 252. Do we celebrate where they are, or remind them of where they were? Did we ask them to apologize for their past ignorance before we bestowed accolades and rewarded them with our patronage?

    There are so many people watching now for any sign of biased action from Hagel, that we are more assured of his working to prove his detractors wrong, rather than providing them fodder for proving them correct. Hagel didn’t equivocate with “I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.” John McCain never uttered anything close to that in 2008 and got endorsed by the very people whose signature issue was DADT repeal and are now deriding Hagel.

    So, if you have to choose between the President’s view of Hagel’s suitability to be Sec’y of Defense or that of LCR, the people who thought that a Romney presidency would be good for Gay Americans, or that John McCain would come around on DADT, is it even really a serious contest?

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  • Mr. Hagel said in his apology. “I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to L.G.B.T. military families” Let’s move on and not rub his nose in it. Hagel has moved on, evolved, and realizes the country has moved light years for gay rights since 1998. We should be more concerned about the neanderthals in congress who would return not only to 1998, but to pre-1993 when having sex with your gay partner was a criminal act.

    • brian

      It’s not a question of ‘rubbing his nose’ in a single comment. Hagel left the Senate just 4 short years ago– with a nearly perfect record of anti-LGBT civil rights naysaying and gay-bashing.

      The history of Washington is replete with insincere political hacks who flip-flop and give press-release-apologies when they’re wanted to fill a new power or political CYA position.

      This job is WAAY too important for that political nonsense. Even without Hagel’s record of homophobia, someone like Joe Sestak is far more qualified for Defense (Naval Academy, Harvard, Admiral).

      And the president ought to be reminded he’s been elected TWICE now– VERY solidly. Bin Laden sleeps with the fishes, and few doubt this president’s resolve to defend our country, as and when needed, as its well-proven Commander-In-Chief.

      Obama has serious national defense chops. He does not need a Republican or former-Republican beard at DOD at all.

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