On Sunday, August 7, Senator Mark Hatfield died at the age of 89. A native Oregonian, he exemplified the independent spirit for which the state is famous. As a moderate Republican (who called himself a Liberal), he was also a symbol of the complex political tensions in our purple state. More than these, however, he was one of the last of a dying breed, a true leader and independent thinker with strong convictions and an understanding of the art of negotiation.
Hatfield was a man of charisma and principles. This blending catapulted him into public service at a young age and helped ensure that he never lost an election. The Senator often reflected on the power of faith in his life. While this is not uncommon for modern Republicans (or Democrats, frankly), his approach was much more honest and benevolent. He accepted that he was a religious person but that others might not be. He used his faith to inform his values, not to build a wall of opposition.
This foundation led him to select the Republican party early in his career due to concerns about the rampant racism among the Southern leaders in the Democratic party. That’s right, he actually understood the messages of Christianity and used them to practice fair treatment for all. Throughout his career, Hatfield voted for (and actively supported) civil rights legislation and fought discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. His support of rights for the LGBT community was an integral part of his support of civil rights dating back to the late 1950s (more than a decade before Stonewall) and extending to his co-sponsorship of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 1994, making him a quiet, consistent pioneer.
Another strong influence on Hatfield was his arrival in Japan during his military service at the end of WWII. Arriving in Hiroshima, he saw atrocities that confirmed his opposition to war and military action. During his time in the Senate he opposed all military action including Viet Nam and the first Gulf war. This stand cost him politically; he was on the short list to be Richard Nixon’s first running mate, but his stand on Viet Nam blocked him. Despite this, he held firm, and his stand on principle helped him maintain the respect of his colleagues and his positions of responsibility in the Senate.
Hatfield’s least progressive stand was on abortion rights. Athough he was personally opposed to abortion, he was complex and intelligent enough to understand the issue beyond his own wishes. He was generally supportive of women’s rights to make their own choices. Unlike the rabid conservatives of today, he also believed in readily available health care and birth control, understanding the link between those programs and a reduced need for abortion. He established the first statewide birth control program in Oregon while governor. These actions, together with his opposition to the death penalty and to funding wars, make him someone who could accurately be described as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” a rare combination.
Hatfield truly cared more about doing the right thing for his constituents than making his party happy. More than once during his career he was threatened by primary challenges from the right, but his integrity and accomplishments always allowed him to prevail. This was true right up to his last election. When interviewed about his opposition to school prayer, term limits, and a balanced budget amendment (all key themes of the Gingrich-era Republican revolution), he rolled his eyes and answered with his typical straightforward honesty.
These are all symbols, and the Republicans will beat the drums and get a lot of pizzazz going because they have fed the public a line about these things. But to present them as if they are the answers and solutions to our nation’s problems is just phony.
Well said, Mr. Senator. You will be missed.