I think Mark Hatfield was the first U.S. Senator I ever saw in person, while attending college in Oregon back in the late 1970s. I never actually met him beyond a hello and handshake, but came to know a number of people who worked for him (especially his legendary chief of staff, Gerry Frank), and began to take an interest in his idiosyncratic politics. Sure, Hatfield was a peacenik (but out of genuine religious conviction, not the usual watery sentimentality of liberals), and as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the early 1980s resisted a lot of the Reagan administration’s proposed budget cuts. After Hatfield cast a key vote against an administration budget position in 1984, Reagan complained about Hatfield in his diary, “With some of our friends we don’t need enemies.”
But Reagan did consider Hatfield a friend, and had him to the White House often. In fact it was Hatfield who urged Reagan to chose an official biographer, and hosted the key dinner at his Georgetown home where Reagan met Edmund Morris (though Morris wasn’t Hatfield’s fault—that was the doing of Mike Deaver and Nancy, a rant for another day). And Hatfield was the Senate chairman of Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, and can be seen prominently standing behind Reagan in the photos of Reagan being sworn in.
And that picture opens the story of how to think about Hatfield. One of my first experiences in Washington as a fresh-faced intern in the winter of 1981 was the time I heard an especially fervent conservative leader look at a photo of Reagan’s swearing in and say, “That picture would look so much better if Hatfield wasn’t in it.” Hatfield was the kind of “maverick” Republican who would do poorly with the Tea Party today. But he was far from your garden variety RINO. As Cal Thomas, no shrinking conservative violet, reminds us in a warm column praising Hatfield especially for his Christian faith, he was staunchly pro-life (and voted for Robert Bork’s confirmation, unlike his fellow Oregon Republican Bob Packwood), and never, ever, could be said to have cast a vote or taken a position out of cynical political calculation.
I’m sure someone may dispute this last point—senators with long records always have some dubious votes or stances—but one episode in his career displays why Hatfield can’t be counted among the usual ranks of political hypocrites, posers, and media panderers. In 1995, following the GOP takeover of both houses of Congress, the Senate finally voted on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The amendment fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds required for passage—Hatfield’s. Hatfield had always opposed a balanced budget amendment on constitutional principle (a position a number of conservatives share, by the way: see Ed Whelan’s case against it yesterday, not to mention Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review lately). Majority Leader Bob Dole, then gearing up to run for president, appealed to Hatfield to change his vote. Hatfield refused.
But then he did something extraordinary. Knowing how important it was to Dole’s presidential prospects to get the amendment passed, Hatfield offered Dole to resign his Senate seat, which would have given Dole the two-thirds vote threshold he needed to get the amendment through. Dole refused to let Hatfield take such a drastic step. (I’m not sure this story was widely known; one of Dole’s top aides relayed it to me.)
Last February I was honored to be asked by the Oregon Historical Society to deliver one of their annual Mark Hatfield lectures about my Reagan work. Hatfield usually liked to attend or receive the lecturer for a visit at home, but I was told that he was too ill to receive visitors. I took as my theme that night the provocative thesis, “How Ronald Reagan Resolved the Election of 1912,” pointing out how at the time of Reagan’s election in 1980, there were, by my count, almost 20 GOP senators like Hatfield who were moderate to liberal, whereas today there are about four (the two ladies from Maine, and McCain and Lindsay Graham when in their media-pandering mode).
I’ve never posted the lecture anywhere—I may try to clean up the text and do so today. One of the points of it was that Reagan completed the transformation of the Republican Party into a wholly conservative party, a transformation that could be said to have begun as far back as the Taft-Teddy Roosevelt clash in 1912. This shift prepared the way for the Tea Party today. But significantly Reagan did not try to purge the Republican Party the way FDR tried (and failed) to do to the Democratic Party in 1938. The Reagan experience, and the curious place of someone like Hatfield, reminds us of how politics is often a two-front war, involving the big differences with the other party, and the smaller but still important differences in your own. RIP.