Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel’s remark to the Omaha World-Herald in 1998 that Clinton ambassadorial nominee James Hormel was “openly aggressively gay” was only a part of what Hagel told the paper about his opposition to Hormel’s nomination.
In additional comments that appeared in the same Omaha World-Herald story on July 3, 1998, Hagel said that Hormel’s gay conduct in public goes “beyond common sense” and concluded that a gay performance group of men in drag as nuns was “anti-Catholic” upon seeing a video of Hormel at one of its events.
Hagel told the paper at the time that being gay shouldn’t disqualify a candidate from being an ambassador, but that Hormel’s conduct would diminish his effectiveness.
Hormel “very aggressively told the world of his gayness and the funding and all the things he’s been involved in,” Hagel was quoted as saying. “I think you do go beyond common sense there, and reason and a certain amount of decorum.”
“If you send an ambassador abroad with a cloud of controversy hanging over him,” he said, “then I think it’s unfair to our country, it’s unfair to the host country and it’s unfair to the ambassador because the effectiveness of that individual is going to be seriously curtailed. That’s just a fact of life. And I believe Hormel’s situation is one of those.”
The quote from the article that has received widespread attention since Hagel’s name was first floated as President Obama’s likely Pentagon nominee had to do with the standard ambassadors should be held to. “They are representing America,” he said. “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 also told the World-Herald he has seen tape of Hormell at an event by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a San Francisco-based performance and activist group comprised of gay men in drag as nuns.
“It is very clear on this tape that he’s laughing and enjoying the antics of an anti-Catholic gay group in this gay parade,” Hagel told the paper in the 1998 interview. “I think it’s wise for the president not to go forward with this nomination.”
Hormel went on to become the first openly gay U.S. ambassador. Last month Hagel apologized for his previously reported comments, before these additional remarks had resurfaced, and declared his commitment to LGBT rights in a statement to Politico.
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said. “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.”
Speaking to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, Hormel questioned the sincerity of Hagel’s apology, noting that it came through the press and appeared to have been issued “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination” for the Pentagon’s top job.
Some gay rights supporters have forgiven Hagel. Steve Clemons, a well-respected and openly gay foreign policy hand in Washington who has known Hagel for years, writes that the former Republican senator “is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Glenn Greenwald, also a proponent of gay rights, argues that Hagel’s “primitive and ugly views on gay issues back in 1998” put him within the mainstream at the time and that his views, like the views of many other Americans, may have evolved since then.
Others aren’t sold yet. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the first openly gay U.S. senator, said she plans to question Hagel before determining whether his apology is “sincere and sufficient.”
Hilary Rosen, a veteran Democratic operative who helped get Hormel the job in 1998, wrote Tuesday morning on Twitter that it’s time to move past Hagel’s remarks.
Hagel remains likely to be confirmed, and his hearings could clear up the entirety of his stance and change of heart. But with these additional remarks, LGBT advocates may have more questions for the former senator than they had previously thought.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.