Then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, Aug. 1996.
Then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, Aug. 1996. DON RYAN/AP
The death at age 89 of Mark Hatfield, the former U.S. senator from Oregon and moderate Republican who repeatedly challenged his party's orthodoxy, is a reminder of how hard it can be in American politics to think and act independently.
In its obituary, OregonNews recalls how Hatfield sometimes swam against not just the mainstream of Republican, but American, opinion. As Oregon's governor, he didn't support the Vietnam War even when it was relatively popular in the U.S.
At the 1965 National Governors Conference in Los Angeles, he was denounced as a traitor for casting the lone "no" vote among 50 governors on a resolution supporting President Johnson's policy in Vietnam. In the early 1970s, he joined then-Democratic Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota to sponsor an amendment seeking to end the Vietnam War. A decade later, he helped launch a campaign for a nuclear weapons freeze.
Later as a senator, he took a position that has resonance for our time when congressional Republicans are pushing for balanced-budget amendment.
As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1995, he cast the decisive vote opposing the amendment.
From the Oregonian's obituary which provides a very useful review of Hatfield's life and career:
Hatfield, who had been out of the chairmanship when Democrats took back the Senate in 1986, was swept back into the majority in the Republican landslide of 1994. But he quickly found himself out of step with the revolution-minded Republican conservatives led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In 1995, Hatfield was the only Senate Republican opposing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kans., who planned to use the amendment as a key issue in his upcoming presidential race, put heavy pressure on Hatfield. At one point, Hatfield offered to resign, but Dole rejected the idea.
In the end, the amendment failed by just one vote — Hatfield's no. That led two freshman GOP senators to try to yank his committee chairmanship. They didn't succeed, but as a result of the controversy, the Republicans agreed in the future to limit the appropriations chairman to a six-year term.
Also interesting to recall was that Hatfield identified himself as an evangelical Christian whose faith led him to be anti-war, ant-abortion and anti-death penalty. Those positions all squared with his belief in the sanctity of life, he said.
But while he occupied the moral high ground on such issues, he also got into ethical problems more than once because of financial gifts he received. Like so many long-time public officials — like so many humans — he had a complicated, sometimes contradictory life.