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“He is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies,” they said. “Moreover, it is damaging to the quality of our civic discourse for prospective Cabinet nominees to be subjected to such vicious attacks on their character before an official nomination.”

The letter was signed by James Jones (Obama), Brent Scowcroft (George H.W. Bush), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter) and Frank Carlucci (Ronald Reagan).

Mr. Hagel serves as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a group of former officials and foreign policy analysts that works to enhance U.S. security through global cooperation.

He fought in Vietnam as an enlisted infantryman and was awarded two Purple Hearts.

Earlier this month, Mr. Hagel sought to head off opposition from gay-rights advocates by repudiating his comment as a freshman senator in 1998 that ambassadorial nominee James Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay.”

“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Mr. Hagel said. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.”