Does Hagel Hate Homos?
Media reports today say that President Obama will nominate former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense. Hagel was something of a maverick Republican during his two terms, from 1997 to 2009. Hagel would certainly not be welcome in today’s Tea Party-dominated GOP.
In a 2007 interview, Hagel called the Bush Administration “the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus – almost every area” of any administration in forty years. When Hagel left the Senate, his approval rating among Nebraska Democrats was ten points higher than it was among Nebraska Republicans. After leaving office, Hagel endorsed Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak in his unsuccessful 2010 Senate run against Republican Pat Toomey, and Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey in his unsuccessful 2012 Senate run against Republican Deb Fischer.
As nominee-presumptive, Hagel is taking heat from both left and right. From the right, Hagel is criticized as unsympathetic to Israel, largely based on impolitic comments like referring to pro-Israel lobbyists as the “Jewish lobby” and saying that he is “not an Israeli Senator” but is “an American Senator.” Hagel favors dialog with Hamas and Iran, and has said that the American “relationship with Israel is special and historic” but “need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.” Hagel has been vigorously defended by former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, academics, and American Jewish opinion leaders.
From the left, Hagel is being hit for his opposition to President Bill Clinton’s 1998 nomination of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel was the first openly gay nominee for an ambassadorship and ultimately became the first openly gay ambassador.
Hormel is the grandson of the founder of Hormel Foods, which brought us Spam back when Spam was a food, at least sort of. Hormel brought an activist past to his nomination. He was a co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign, and he was on the board of directors of AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. He founded a gay and lesbian historical and cultural archive in San Francisco. He has been recognized as a lifelong leader in the field of gay rights.
Hormel’s nomination to be the ambassador to Luxembourg drew opposition from the usual anti-gay quarters, most prominently the Catholic Church, the Republican Party, and the GOP’s homo-hating affiliates like the Family Research Council. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott refused to bring the nomination to a floor vote, saying that Hormel’s homosexuality was akin to alcoholism and kleptomania. Hagel stated his opposition to Hormel’s nomination, saying that Hormel was “aggressively gay” – referring presumably to Hormel’s activism. Nor was Hagel’s Senate record otherwise especially pro-gay. He voted in favor of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” for instance.
But here’s the thing: if past anti-gay views are disqualifying for federal appointment, we are going to have serious problems staffing our government. I am ten years younger than Hagel, and I grew up in a time when and a place where there simply were no heterosexual advocates of gay rights.
All you have to do is look at a few polls on same-sex marriage to realize that whole bunches of people have changed their minds on gay rights in recent decades. We should not refuse to take “yes” for an answer – when a politician changes his mind on gay rights questions, we should count it as a success, thank the gentleman, and move on.
So, has Chuck Hagel changed his mind about gay rights?
He originally favored “don’t ask, don’t tell” – along with majorities of the House and Senate, not to mention the American people and the most popular Democratic President since FDR. He later came to favor repeal of DADT. Other than that, we don’t know much about Hagel’s views on gay rights issues, although Steve Clemons, openly gay editor-at-large for The Atlantic and self-described “foreign policy wonk,” has written vigorously in defense of Hagel’s nomination.
It’s easy enough to see why President Obama would nominate Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is open to dialog with hostile powers, as Obama is. Hagel recognizes the importance of good American relations with Arab and Muslim countries, as Obama does. Hagel has served the Obama Administration on a slew of foreign policy advisory boards. Maybe most important of all, Hagel has publicly stated his opinion that the Defense Department is “bloated” and needs to be “pared down.”
So I say let’s hold our fire until we get to know Hagel a little better; his confirmation hearings will be held soon enough, assuming reports of his imminent nomination are correct. After all, any Republican who panned the Bush Administration in 2007 can’t be all bad.