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Chuck Hagel apologizes for 1998 gay slur

This post was updated at 4:40 p.m. ET

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., reportedly one of President Obama's top candidates for defense secretary, apologized Friday for disparaging remarks he made about a gay ambassadorial nominee in 1998, seeking to quell a controversy that could derail a potential bid for the Pentagon.

Hagel, a Republican, assailed then-President Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, as "openly, aggressively gay," questioning whether Hormel could "do an effective job."

Ambassadors "are representing America," Hagel told the Omaha World-Herald in 1998. "They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay."

The comments, which resurfaced this week, drew fierce condemnation from LGBT and progressive groups, who questioned whether Hagel would be able to effectively oversee the repeal of don't-ask-don't-tell.

Hagel, recognizing the threat the rising furor could pose to his potential nomination, released a statement on Friday apologizing for the remarks.

"My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," said Hagel. "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."

Hormel, in a Facebook post, commended Hagel for the "significant" apology, saying, "I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything."

While conceding that "the timing appears self serving," Hormel wrote, "The words themselves are unequivocal."

"Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted - perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times too," said the former ambassador, adding that if Hagel demonstrates "a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination."

It's not the first bump in the road for Hagel's potential nomination, which has also drawn criticism from pro-Israel groups who have taken issue with some of the former Senator's prior comments on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to address criticism of Hagel on Thursday but called the former senator "a remarkable servant to this country."

On Friday, Mr. Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be his next secretary of state, but the White House remained mum on plans for the Pentagon when current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who's indicated his interest in stepping down, leaves his post next year. Other potential nominees include Ashton Carter, the current deputy secretary of defense, and Michele Flournoy, who was undersecretary of defense for policy for Mr. Obama's first two years and, if nominated and confirmed, would be the nation's first female defense secretary.

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