President Barack Obama defended U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel from criticism for antigay remarks he made in 1998, saying that the prospective Secretary of Defense appointee's recent apology for the comments shows "positive change."
The Republican from Nebraska, considered a top candidate to run the Pentagon, came under fire this month for statements he made 14 years ago about President Bill Clinton's appointment of James Hormel, who is gay, as ambassador of Luxembourg. Hagel said being gay could be an "inhibiting factor" in a diplomatic post.
"They are representing America," he said at the time. "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."
President Obama was asked about the controversy Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press. He told host David Gregory that he believed Hagel would be qualified to replace Leon Panetta as Defense Secretary, although no final decision has been made.
"I've served with Chuck Hagel," said Obama. "I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam, and is somebody who's currently serving on my Intelligence Advisory Board and doing an outstanding job."
"With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it," Obama continued. "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. And that's something that I'm very proud to have led. And I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues."
Hagel, who also opposed repealing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy at the time, issued an apology and affirmed his commitment to open military service. Some LGBT rights groups accepted his apology, but the Log Cabin Republicans has continued to oppose him and took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling him a "no-go" nominee.
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