Northwest may never see another Republican like Hatfield

Mark Hatfield as governor of Oregon. Credit: State of Oregon/Wikipedia

Mark Hatfield was the epitome of what it meant to be a moderate, and successful, Oregon Republican in the last half of the 20th Century. Many Oregonians still refer to themselves as “Hatfield Republicans” in the same manner as Washingtonians still invoke the name of Dan Evans to denote distance from the party’s conservative wing.

Hatfield, who died in Portland on Sunday (Aug. 7) at age 89, was to the Oregon governorship much like Evans, and to Oregon’s U.S. Senate delegation much like Washington’s Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson. No other Northwest figure was as effective in both state and national politics.

Hatfield served in elective office continuously from 1950, when he won a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, to his 1997 retirement after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, where he twice chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Known in later years as one who delivered expensive projects to his home state, in the manner of Washington’s Magnuson, Hatfield entered the Senate as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, the only governor to oppose President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war policy in 1966. The 1970 Hatfield-McGovern resolution against the Vietnam War was followed in 1990 by Hatfield’s vote against the Persian Gulf War; he was one of only two GOP senators voting against the invasion to free Kuwait from Iraq’s occupation.

My last conversation with Mark Hatfield was in 2004, when we lunched together in Portland. The senator and I shared an interest in Oregon history, and he had a writing project he wanted me to pursue. Conversation turned to his role as honorary chair of the George W. Bush re-election campaign in Oregon and the senator vigorously defended the then-president, despite Hatfield’s long opposition to America’s wars of the last four decades. A less-likely pair than Bush and Hatfield is hard to imagine, but Hatfield remained a loyal Republican whose votes on major issues often opposed the party line but who always supported the party nominee. He danced with the one who brought him, although it was often awkwardly choreographed.

Perhaps the most awkward dance —one that failed — was when the Newt Gingrich generation of Republicans took the House of Representatives in 1995 and sent a balanced budget constitutional amendment to the Senate. Hatfield, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was under massive pressure to vote to refer the measure to the states for approval. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, planning his 1996 campaign to defeat President Bill Clinton, leaned on the veteran Hatfield, but Hatfield, loyalty to the appropriations process and the Senate’s institutional independence, cast the lone Republican vote against the amendment. It failed in the Senate by one vote: Hatfield’s. Two young Republican senators tried to strip him of his powerful chairmanship, to no avail.

I met the young Hatfield during his first campaign for governor in 1958. He was a rising star, serving as Oregon Secretary of State, handsome and mannerly, an articulate Baptist with a scholarly approach to politics. He understood grassroots organization and already had around him several longtime friends dedicated to his career. He swept aside the incumbent governor, Democrat Robert Holmes.

Personally and politically, Hatfield was the most complex and most successful Oregon politician of his time. Although a natural for television in many ways, Hatfield never relaxed around cameras or reporters and had few close friends in media. His Senate office was always quite buttoned-down, and his personal papers — at his alma mater, Willamette University in Salem — are closed and probably will remain that way for years. A public man all his life, he protected his privacy and personal life. Little in the way of details about his health or death was made public immediately. Friends had described his condition as “frail,” and at the end his family released no cause of death. He lived for much of the past year at the care center of the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington, D.C., a unit that bore his name; a twin unit was named for Magnuson. The two senators had been crucial to expansion of the facility.

Hatfield’s lifelong dedication to people in need was deeply influenced by his mother, Dovie Hatfield, who returned to college as an adult in order to become a teacher. From her the young Mark Hatfield took the moral credo of her Baptist faith and a belief in public service. He was still living at home in Salem when he entered the Oregon Legislature in 1950, at age 28 the youngest legislator. He served in both houses of the Legislature until 1956 when he was elected secretary of state. In several of his elections he bucked opposition from Republican conservatives, some of whom saw him as an upstart youngster with no business experience (he was teaching at Willamette University) and with a liberal view on civil rights.

In his early statewide races, Hatfield played heavily on his religious views and to the end of his career his backing from mainstream churchgoers was critical. Hatfield’s religiosity seemed contradictory to his generally liberal social views, but he found consistency in opposing both abortion and capital punishment and in opposing both communism and the John Birch Society. An evangelical Christian, Hatfield wrote of his faith, but was never close to the religious right wing of the Republican Party.

Nothing better defined Hatfield in the 1960s than his opposition to the Vietnam War and it nearly derailed his career. In 1966 a sizeable majority of voters supported President Lyndon Johnson’s approach to Vietnam, which was already escalating troop engagement. Hatfield had been in Vietnam as a Navy lieutenant just after World War II; he had also entered Hiroshima while ruins were still smoking after the atomic bombing. The experiences had a profound effect on him but his status as a war veteran helped deflect pro-war opponents. In 1966, engaged in a race for U.S. Senate, he was the only governor to oppose a National Governors Association resolution backing LBJ’s conduct of the war. Democrat Robert Duncan, a popular congressman and former House speaker, railed against Hatfield on the issue of Vietnam, and many Republicans deserted their nominee. Hatfield won by 24,000 votes.

The anti-war vote made him a celebrity with war opponents, but he looked so young and was so new to the Senate in 1967 that, when he took me on a tour of the private areas of the Senate, he was challenged by a guard who asked for identity. By the time of his retirement he had become an expert in Senate history and amassed a valuable collection of Lincoln memorabilia. History fascinated him and he directed large grants to the Oregon Historical Society over the years; a lectureship there bears his name.

When backers of Richard Nixon approached him in 1968 to support the former vice president in a run for the White House, they pulled Hatfield’s religious and anti-war strings. “They reminded me that Nixon’s mother was a prominent Quaker,” Hatfield told me at the time, “But I told them we wouldn’t be voting for Hannah Nixon, we’d be voting for her son.” Despite his lack of trust in Nixon, Hatfield was on the short list for the GOP vice-presidential nomination that year, losing out to Spiro Agnew. Had he been elected with Nixon, he would have become president when Watergate brought Nixon down. Hatfield went with Nixon over Nelson Rockefeller because, he said at the time, Nixon was more likely to end the Vietnam War through negotiations. When that didn’t happen, Hatfield became an outspoken Senate opponent of Nixon’s policies and he wound up on one of the infamous Nixon “enemies lists.”

Hatfield’s reputation for moral rectitude (he was sometimes called “Saint Mark” by colleagues, and not always in derisive terms), was challenged in 1984 when columnist Jack Anderson revealed that Hatfield’s wife, Antoinette, had received a $50,000 realtor’s fee for showing houses to Greek financier Basil Tsakos while her husband was using his Senate office to promote a Tsakos scheme to build an oil pipeline across Africa. Hatfield was running for re-election and had to defend the deal to Oregonians. I challenged him in a combative television interview and series of commentaries on KGW-TV (owned by King Broadcasting), and found myself persona non grata. After Ronald Reagan was re-elected later that year and Hatfield headed the inaugural committee, my colleague Don Porter, then heading King’s Washington, D.C., bureau, was forced to stand in the snow while competitors went inside Hatfield’s house to film an inaugural breakfast. Hatfield was absolved by his colleagues of any wrongdoing in the Tsakos case.

As he grew in Senate seniority and forged strong personal relationships with senior members of both parties, Hatfield slipped from the national spotlight, seldom seen in Sunday interview shows or headlined in national newspapers. Hatfield made a conscious decision to use his seniority on Appropriations to funnel money to Oregon in the same manner as Warren Magnuson built Washington state’s institutions. He built personal bonds across the political aisle (including with Magnuson) and gained a reputation for intellectual integrity. His position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee was the ultimate insider role.

He doggedly delivered health and science projects to the University of Oregon’s Health Sciences Center, the Oregon State University Marine Sciences Center (later carrying his name), and brought about a series of dams, jetties, port installations, and forest projects. He brokered the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area as well as forest wilderness.

For four decades, Hatfield stayed true to his emphasis on peace over war, the importance of scientific and medical research, and aid to the poor and sick. He supported environmental issues such as forest wilderness and the Columbia Gorge but also championed timber policies and dams often opposed by environmentalists. As chair of Appropriations, he bulled through a major dam on a Rogue River tributary at Elk Creek despite opposition from environmentalists and even the Reagan Administration (the latter on cost grounds). My last television documentary, in 1986, opposed the dam and I wound up in Hatfield’s doghouse once more.

After I left Oregon in 1989 I had no contact with the senator until he invited me to that 2004 lunch. We had shared causes but there were deep rifts as well, and the lunch was perhaps a way to heal old wounds. It certainly felt good to me; like millions of Oregonians over nearly half a century, I admired, respected, and learned from the governor and senator. No one dominated Oregon politics over the entire last half of the century more than Hatfield, and his stamp on the state is indelible.

Hatfield would have loathed the partisanship of today’s Congress, and would have constantly found himself under the sort of pressure he faced in 1995. He left on his own terms and at his own time. That was quintessential Mark Hatfield. We may never see another like him.

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