By Mike Mount
Calls of concern and support over President Obama's possible pick to be the next secretary of defense are piling up as former colleagues and special interest organizations take aim at and defend the independent-thinking former senator.
Chuck Hagel is believed to be the president's preferred candidate to run the Pentagon, but an announcement has yet to be made by the White House.
On Friday Hagel, in the awkward position of defending himself for a job nobody at the White House will publicly acknowledge he is a candidate for, tried to explain an anti-gay comment he made in 1998.
Gay rights groups, who were strong supporters of Obama's election campaigns, hit Hagel for questioning whether a nominee for an ambassadorship was suitable because he was "openly, aggressively gay."
"My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," he said in a statement released by his office at Georgetown University, where he teaches. "They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador (James) 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."
In a statement sent to CNN by the Human Rights Campaign, the group accepted Hagel's apology and said his comments show "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."
Also Friday, a former Republican colleague, Sen. John McCain of Arizona - whom Hagel did not support when he ran for president in 2008 - said he has concerns about various controversial comments made by Hagel in the past.
"I've known Sen. Hagel for many years. I appreciate also his service in Vietnam. I am concerned about many of the comments that he made and has made, like reference to a, quote, Jewish lobby, which I don't believe exists," McCain told reporters Friday.
"I think that many of those comments and other positions that he has taken will be the subject of the Senate Armed Services Committee and I certainly look forward to asking those questions and getting his responses."
On Thursday, opposition to Hagel began to spike over what are perceived by some as anti-Jewish comments in a 2007 interview, when he said the "Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers."
The now five-year-old comment set off a firestorm of protests from Jewish leaders and advocacy groups this week as Hagel's name was increasingly mentioned for the Pentagon's top position.
"Chuck Hagel's statements and actions regarding Israel have raised serious concerns for many Americans who care about Israel," the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a written statement. "...The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel."
But Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East expert, told CNN, "It doesn't mean that Chuck Hagel is an enemy of the state of Israel, or an anti-Semite. I think those charges are really, really off the mark."
But Hagel has also been receiving a good deal of public support this week, including that of former top military officers and ambassadors in two open letters. Among those embracing Hagel's skills for the job are a former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and four former U.S. ambassadors to Israel.
"Senator Hagel has stood up for what he believes are the best interests of the United States for many years, regardless of party or politics," the former military officers said in their open letter, released Friday. "We all know that the next secretary of defense will have a challenging job to do - in this time of budget constraint and unprecedented challenges around the world, the leadership of the Department of Defense must be strong."
The former ambassadors, in their letter, said, "Time and again he chose to take the path of standing up for our nation over political expediency. He has always supported the pillars of American foreign policy."
Such organized and public praise being heaped onto Hagel after a week of being haunted by ghosts of his past raised a question of whether the White House - seeking to avoid another public debacle like that which followed suggestions that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, might be nominated as secretary of state - was behind the statements by the senior officials.
Rice's comments about the death of a U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, inflamed Republicans and ultimately led to her withdrawing her name from consideration.
Before she withdrew, the White House issued statements strongly supporting Rice. Whether it will do the same for Hagel remains to be seen.