It's a classic Washington story. A guy says something stupid. More than a decade later, he is offered the chance at a fantastically powerful position, and has to disavow his past comments. The only question then is whether he will be forgiven by the people he offended.
In the case of Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, the comment in question involves a homophobic remark. And while many gay-activist groups seem to be at least giving Hagel the benefit of the doubt, one group, the Log Cabin Republicans, has been on the offensive against his nomination.
“Now is not the time to roll the dice on a nominee and cross our fingers he will smoothly implement don’t ask, don’t tell,” interim Log Cabin Republicans Director Gregory Angelo said in an interview. “Hagel has invited people to look at te totality of his record. When we looked at the totality of his record, we saw it as a net negative, and that disqualified him in our eyes.”
The Log Cabin Republicans took out a full-page ad (posted at right) in The Washington Post on Monday (which, even in an era of declining print revenues, is no small feat) documenting a troubled history with gay rights, including the time in 1998 when then-Sen. Hagel called James Hormel, President Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, “openly, aggressively gay,” and Hagel's past stances in favor of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act.
It's an interesting role for the Log Cabin Republicans. In a sense, what they are doing falls directly in line with the rest of the party: They are opposing Hagel's nomination. But they are attacking from a flank that other members of the party cannot. And while most Republicans will hammer Hagel on past comments on Israel or the Iraq war, they surely won't mind the additional firepower from the social side.
Since Hagel made his now-infamous comment, nine states have legalized gay marriage (10 if you include California, which briefly granted same-sex marriages in 2008) and don’t ask, don’t tell has been repealed.
President Obama said in May of last year that he supported gay marriage, and the country has been going through an evolution on the issue in recent years.
So when Hagel apologized in December for his comments, saying that “they do not reflect my views of the totality of my public record” and saying that he is now “supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families,” many groups took him at his word and saw it as a changing of the times.
"Senator Hagel's apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues,” the president of the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, said in a statement. “Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we're proud that Senator Hagel is one of them.”
It’s a sentiment that has been echoed by many other gay-rights groups. Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign wrote an article for The Huffington Post on Monday in support of Hagel, and told National Journal that there is an “incredible double standard” coming from the opposition.
“If we punished everybody who said 15 years ago that gay people shouldn’t be getting married, for example, then Bill Clinton should be on the big black list right now,” he said. “It was important to point out Hagel’s statement, but it’s also important that he apologized for it.”
Jacobs took particular issue with the Log Cabin Republicans’ stance.
“It really is the spirit of the bizarre,” he said. “Here they are spending money from we don’t know where for a full page ad after they have endorsed Mitt 'It Gets Worse' Romney. There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.”
Even the group with arguably the most skin in the game here, OutServe-SLDN—an association of actively serving LGBT military personnel—put out a statement saying they appreciated the apology.
“Senator Hagel will have an opportunity to address these issues during the hearings on the Hill and I believe he will be able to do that effectively and many of the concerns that have been expressed will be alleviated,” OutServe spokesman Zeke Stokes told National Journal.
So why then are the Log Cabin Republicans the outliers here? Angelo said that of course he wished more gay-rights groups would align themselves with him and oppose Hagel, but that their decision not to is just proof that the gay community is not monolithic in its views. He said he did not know why other groups would support Hagel, and his organization wouldn't have a problem with an honest evolution of a person’s stance on gay rights—the key word being honest.
“This evolution seemed to happen at a very politically expedient, coincidental time,” he said. “An apology came only after his name was floated as a nominee, it’s suspicious.”