03/23/2012 05:18 pm ET Updated May 23, 2012

A Review Of James Hormel's Fit To Serve

From the summer of 1999 to the end of the Clinton Administration in 2000, James Catherwood Hormel was America's ambassador to Luxembourg, a tiny duchy of 997 square miles wedged between France, Belgium, and Germany.

This fact might not seem so interesting in and of itself, except for one thing.

Ambassador Hormel is openly gay.

Therein lay one of the culture-war battles of the 1990s, a tale now properly told in Mr. Hormel's memoir, subtitled Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.

Mr. Hormel is of the Hormels, a family whose meat-packing firm is familiar to anyone who has visited a supermarket in this country in the last 70 years.

He describes an eccentric, gilded childhood in the town of Minnesota, Austin, still home of the family company. He had a distant father who died relatively young, an elegant French mother, two older brothers, and a 26-bedroom mansion on 200 acres on the edge of town.

When the wind blew the wrong way, the school stank of the family's meat-packing plant, Austin's major employer. During the 1930s, Lindbergh-era kidnapping fears heightened family security.

His family's sense of noblesse oblige towards its workers was real, reflected in a kind of corporate paternalism that is almost forgotten today, but it extended to believing that the young Hormel brothers should "show an example" to the community in ways no 10-year-old is ever going to enjoy. Thus he and his brothers were required to wear 1920s golf knickers long after the fashion had become ridiculous to everyone in the United States other than their mother, and arrived at school by chauffeured limousine.

One compensating benefit: a string of politically and otherwise prominent guests at the family home.

During WWII, cousins from the French branch of the family came to stay as refugees. Surprisingly, the family's name is actually pronounced HOR-mel, rhyming with "normal," and it only got changed because an advertising agency doing a radio campaign thought hor-MEL sounded better on the radio.

As an adolescent, James Hormel began to sense that his desires were... different. But the culture of the time offered no help in understanding what they were. As he writes,

There was no frame of reference to help me figure out what was going on inside my head and my body. How was I to know that there was a whole universe of people who were gay? Homosexuality then was like cancer, alcoholism, mental retardation--not to be discussed.

He tried very hard to be "normal." For a while, it seemed, after some college trouble, that he had succeeded. He made a conventional success of himself, at Swarthmore and then the University of Chicago Law School, where he was later dean of students. He got married relatively young, to a woman he genuinely loved, and had five children.

(He now has 14 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. Ironically, he is more of a family man than many of his "family values" detractors.)

But something clearly wasn't right. He was still gay and living a life that wasn't. He describes the furtiveness of being gay in the 1950's, when exposure meant the destruction of one's career and family relationships. He describes the code words and stratagems gays used to navigate this treacherous environment. He describes his own casually homophobic chit-chat, fitting in, dying inside.

He lived in constant fear of exposure. One time, he thought he was about to be exposed due to a casual encounter that went wrong, but nothing came of it. Fear of exposure led him to turn down an offer of a good shot at a Congressional seat in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

The man who won the seat he would have had was one Donald Rumsfeld.

Eventually, something had to give. The year he came out of the closet, 1966, homosexuality was still listed in the American Psychiatric Association's official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Hormel describes losing his marriage and his long subsequent struggle to reinvent himself--in New York, Hawaii, and eventually San Francisco, where he settled in 1977. He describes his involvement in New Left politics--he was National Director of the short-lived New Party--as a personal as much as a political catharsis. During the brief period when it looked like the New Left was turning to terrorism, the FBI tried to recruit him as an informant.

Hormel made his home in San Francisco at a time of fantastic ferment in the gay community--when Harvey Milk was new, the time also of Anita Bryant and Proposition Six, which would have forbidden gays teaching in public schools and which even California's conservative governor at the time, one Ronald Reagan, denounced.

Eventually, of course, Milk was assassinated. And a certain deadly disease, poorly understood at first, began making the rounds in the gay community. As Hormel puts it, "Within a matter of year, San Francisco's haven of freedom devolved into a world of pure terror."

Hormel was initially reluctant to seek a Federal appointment. He is not a political careerist or a big-money donor seeking an ambassadorship to embellish his obituary.

But he reasoned that even if his serving in an ambassadorial appointment wouldn't be a big deal for him personally, it would be a big deal for everyone who came after him--and, hopefully, found the hole already punched in this particular glass ceiling.

The ban on gays in the diplomatic service and other ramifications of America's foreign affairs and national-security apparatus has a particularly ugly history. Unlike, say, Wall Street, which has historically been homophobic but mainly in a coldly closeted way, the State Department and related institutions actively hunted down homosexuals and drummed them out of the service, using the full investigative powers of the government.

They called it the "lavender scare." In theory, this was because homosexuals were a security risk. Because they could be blackmailed. With the threat of being exposed as homosexual. And losing their jobs. The rigor of this illogic is flawless, and the policy only ended in 1969.

That the religious right organized against Hormel's confirmation as ambassador is no surprise. Opposition to homosexuality is a proudly affirmed principle for them and has been as long as gay rights have been an issue in American politics. In a democracy, people are, of course, entitled to believe such things and worse.

What was disappointing about this particular battle was the cynicism and lack of respect for the truth it involved.

Ambassador Hormel's opponents didn't, for one thing, have the courage to forthrightly say, "We believe God deems homosexuality a sin, therefore you should not be ambassador," which is, in theory, the basis of their moral position.

They chose to attack him for utterly imaginary offenses, like being a supporter of NAMBLA (the National Man-Boy Love Association, a pro-pedophilia group), an organization he deplores and has never had anything to do with.

Right-wing televangelist Pat Robertson's TV show The 700 Club breathlessly reported that, "A wealthy tycoon with ties to homosexual groups that promote sex with children may soon be a United States ambassador, without approval of the U.S. Senate." As Hormel tartly observes, "The show had the atmospherics of children's theatre."

Hormel's opponents attacked him for including "pedophile pornography" in the special collection named for him at the San Francisco Public Library. Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition travelled to San Francisco to root around for dirt in this collection.

They did find a few naughty pictures. Gotcha!

But, like any ethical donor, Hormel had no part in selecting the materials for the collection he helped fund, and the offending items turned out to be also be in... the Library of Congress and other major collections. So, as Hormel points out, is Mein Kampf and a lot of other things nobody sane believes in or supports, because libraries provide for research into nasty subjects as well as nice ones.

Then there was The Video Tape. This showed him laughing at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 1996 when the comedy troupe The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence went by. This was supposedly anti-Catholic.

Perhaps the acme of cynicism was when Sen. Trent Lott (R-MI) refused to even meet with him because he feared, as reported by a friend, "I might like him"--a sign the Republican leadership knew it was playing an empty game of political football to impress certain of its constituencies, nothing more.

The Republican leadership kept his nomination in limbo from 1997 to 1999 by refusing to allow a vote on it.

President Clinton was at best an ambiguous ally. He did support Hormel, but he also, in 1996, signed the notorious Defense of Marriage Act--which is still on the books.

The Pacific island of Fiji, Hormel's first choice for an ambassadorial post, let it be known he was not welcome. (The island had sodomy laws, left over from British colonial days.)

Even leaving aside the political battle over his confirmation, Hormel did not expect the assignment in Luxembourg to be handed to him as a plum. So, during his long wait, he took staff positions with the United Nations in Geneva and New York to burnish his diplomatic knowledge and credentials.

In the end, there were only two votes against James Hormel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which confirms ambassadors: the notorious (and now dead) Jesse Helms, and John Ashcroft, Republican of Missouri.

Ultimately, Hormel received a recess appointment from President Clinton in 1999. Thanks to the support of moderate Republicans, he probably could have won a straight yes-no vote on the Senate floor, but he didn't have the 60 votes needed to force the Republican leadership to hold a vote.

I did not know that non-career ambassadors had to go through a little training seminar at the State Department in Washington. Of course they do. Neither did I know that Greenpeace welcomed him by dumping several tons of genetically modified soybeans on the front driveway of his embassy, a relatively unguarded target due to budget cuts.

It is heartening to learn that, whatever his other problems, Pres. George W. Bush chose not to play the same game James Hormel endured, and nominated an openly-gay ambassador of his own, Michael Guest of Romania, in 2001.

This memoir is an inspiring addition to the history of an episode of American diplomacy that will hopefully seem quaint before too long.