by Chris Johnson | The Washington Blade
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.
“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, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, 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.
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.”