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August 10th, 2011 12:01 am MARK ZUSMAN | Politics

The Enduring Book of Mark

The death of former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield reminds Oregon why he still matters.

Hatfield made national headlines and earned enemies. In 1966, he was running for U.S. Senate; his opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Duncan (D-Ore.), attacked Hatfield as a dove and famously stated that if we don’t fight communists “in the elephant grass of Southeast Asia, then we will have to fight them in the rye grass of the Columbia River Basin.” The state’s senior senator, Democrat Wayne Morse, crossed party lines and endorsed Hatfield, who won by 24,000 votes. 

Two years later, in the tumult that was 1968, Hatfield seemingly compromised his antiwar position when he supported the candidacy of Richard Nixon for president rather than moderate New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon was a hawk on Vietnam, but Hatfield thought him the best hope to end the war. Nixon went on to win the Oregon primary. Hatfield’s endorsement was key, and Nixon said the victory sewed up the Republican nomination.

Hatfield made the short list of potential vice-presidential candidates for Nixon. His friend the Rev. Billy Graham lobbied Nixon on his behalf; Hatfield’s forces worked the GOP convention that year in Miami. Nixon ultimately chose Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, a pol far from Hatfield in both politics and polish. 

Hatfield later drafted a 1970 get-out-of Vietnam amendment with Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). In the 1980s, he led an effort to impose a freeze on U.S. nuclear weapons. He opposed the 1991 Gulf war and never voted for a military authorization bill.

These positions were not the only ones with which Hatfield cut against the grain of his Republican colleagues. He opposed efforts to institute school prayer and disliked term limits. He tried to pass a federal bottle bill, supported a federal shield law for news reporters, proposed banning from farming any company with assets of more than $3 million and, in response to the energy crisis of 1973, favored the elimination of the oil depletion allowance, a huge tax benefit for the oil industry.

Hatfield navigated the borderlands of politics and religion long before it was fundamental for Republicans to make their religious (read: Christian) views a standard part of their campaigning. He spoke openly about God and faith, and wrote books on spirituality, but he never made his views prominent in his politics. His allies spanned from Billy Graham to Mother Teresa. He opposed abortion, yet he also supported a statewide birth control program. He was a devout Baptist who married Antoinette Kuzmanich, a Catholic. In 1958, that was a big deal; a Catholic newspaper refused Hatfield’s political ads when he ran for governor.

His political independence continued into an era when Republicans sought to destroy any member of the party who even smelled like a moderate. After his 1995 balanced budget amendment vote, GOP leaders savaged him, and he threatened to quit rather than compromise his belief that the amendment was a bad idea. The GOP looked petty, and Hatfield emerged with his reputation for courage freshly burnished.

Hatfield was the first Oregon leader to make economic development a top priority, but he remained loyal to the timber industry—a meaningful force in those days—and deepened the state’s dependence on logging. In the Senate, he pushed for high timber cuts on federal lands. These shortsighted policies did damage to timber towns, exhausting the woods, helping to bring on timber shortages and triggering the legal wars over the northern spotted owl.

LION IN WINTER: Hatfield and his wife, Antoinette, visiting Willamette University in 2008.
Credits: Courtesy of Willamette University

He also took pride in supporting the expansion of the state parks system, investing in fish conservation and establishing a number of federal wilderness areas. One of his greatest environmental accomplishments was the 1986 creation of the federally protected Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, an effort that capped decades of legislative attempts.

From his perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hatfield remade Oregon with billions of dollars in federal projects—from the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport to Portland’s light-rail system to bridges around the state. No institution benefited more than Oregon Health & Science University, the state’s medical school and leading research institution. When Hatfield’s daughter Elizabeth was admitted to the medical school in 1989 via a “special admissions process,” critics screamed foul and two admission-panel members quit. Others thought it was the least OHSU could do for Sen. Hatfield.

Hatfield sometimes overstepped with his appropriations power, falling victim to the arrogance of building something just because he could.

He jammed the Elk Creek Dam into the Rogue River basin in Southern Oregon even though most stakeholders, including the federal Army Corps of Engineers, thought it a bad idea that would kill fish, alter river temperatures and do little for flood control. In other words, a colossal waste. Two years ago, after decades of folly, not even Congress could deny the lunacy, and the Elk Creek Dam was finally breached.

Hatfield’s reputation for rectitude and integrity earned him the nickname Saint Mark, a moniker he neither promoted nor disavowed. Behind the clean facade was a senator often with money troubles who sometimes slid into bad ethical choices.

In 1984, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson reported that Hatfield aided Basil Tsakos, a shadowy Greek businessman with a scheme for an oil pipeline across North Africa. Hatfield introduced Tsakos to powerful people, including U.S. Energy Secretary Donald Hodel, a Portland native and Hatfield ally. Meanwhile, Hatfield’s wife, Antoinette, collected $55,000 from Tsakos in real-estate consulting fees. Tsakos, who had a criminal record, said he paid Antoinette for locating and supervising the renovation of a Watergate complex apartment. The apartment’s seller said he’d never met Mrs. Hatfield. The Hatfields apologized and donated the money to charity.

In 1991, Hatfield was the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry into gifts he received—and didn’t report—from the president of the University of South Carolina, gifts coming while Hatfield considered a $16 million grant to the university. Among the overlooked gifts: a scholarship to one of Hatfield’s sons. 

The inquiry uncovered a gift of $75,000 (in the form of a forgiven loan) from John Dellenback, a former Oregon congressman, and a similar “gift” from a California businessman. After a Senate ethics investigation, Hatfield was rebuked by his peers.

Hatfield’s transgressions were arguably as bad as those of his Oregon colleague Sen. Bob Packwood, who served 26 years in the Senate. Yet it was Packwood who was forced out of office; the Senate Ethics Committee moved to expel Packwood in 1996 after finding him guilty of sexual improprieties with female aides and other women, and he was forced to quit.

Why did one man resign and the other endure? Many in the Senate couldn’t stand Packwood, but they liked, even loved, Mark Hatfield. 

So did Oregon.

UPDATE: Click here to see a WW interview with former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski about Hatfield.

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