Fitting because in 1995 the Oregon senator was the only Republican to vote against a similar amendment. Grim-faced and on the verge of resigning his Senate seat over the issue, Hatfield cast the deciding vote to kill the amendment. “It was one of the most courageous votes I’ve ever seen,” Senate historian Donald Ritchie told Roll Call this week.
Hatfield, who died Aug. 7 at the age of 89, didn’t resign. He instead showed the independence and character that made him the class act of Oregon politics. He fused deep Baptist beliefs, a knack for retail politics and matinee-idol good looks into a political career marked by his strong pacifism and extraordinary longevity. He’s best known today as a virtuoso of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he used to steer home billions of dollars in federal projects that reshaped Oregon.
But the ways in which Hatfield changed Oregon run deeper than the federal money or shiny buildings that carry his name. He brought modernity to Oregon government and led its politics out of the backwoods and into national prominence. To do it, Hatfield combined ambition and discipline better than any Oregon politician of his time.
Hatfield was born in Dallas, Ore., in 1922, the only child of a railroad blacksmith and a teacher. His mother was both domineering and had great ambitions for her son. Hatfield could not recall any desire but to get into politics. In high school, he was an Oregon State Capitol tour guide; after hours he would slip into the governor’s office, sit in the executive’s chair, caress the desk and tell himself this would someday be his. While earning a political science degree at Stanford, his friend Travis Cross recalled, Hatfield took a piece of paper and plotted out his ascendancy: from state legislature to governor to the U.S. Senate to…and here he left the space blank. He moved to Salem and within 10 years, in 1958, was elected governor—at 36, the youngest in state history.
Hatfield broke the Republican political machine that had anointed candidates for decades. In its place, he built a Hatfield machine that consolidated power around him, not the party. He built it with Gerry Frank, the scion of a department-store fortune and an organizational whiz. The two men met in Salem when Hatfield (then in the Legislature) and Frank were named by The Oregonian as two of Salem’s most eligible bachelors. Frank ultimately became Hatfield’s closest adviser and chief of staff, and helped build the Hatfield machine with an index file of more than 100,000 personal contacts.
Hatfield transformed Oregon by leading the fight in the 1950s against the state’s deep history of racial segregation. When it came to racism, Oregon was among the worst. As a Willamette University student, Hatfield helped bring Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson to campus; Hatfield recalled driving the two of them back to Portland, humiliated for his state, because Salem’s hotels had a “no coloreds” policy. As a state legislator, Hatfield led the fight to ban racial housing discrimination in Oregon.
Hatfield’s turbocharged rise in politics (the state House, state Senate, secretary of state and two terms as governor) was fueled by his oratorical skills and a singular charisma that was at once aloof and magnetic. Part of Hatfield’s success was that he looked the part: strikingly handsome, fashionable and publicly formal. Fellow Republican and friend Norma Paulus once said that she had never seen Hatfield “outside of a tie.” Hatfield, in the words of Daily Astorian editor Steve Forrester “was like a beautiful woman. You assumed he wasn’t smart. But he was. Very.” Hatfield, for many years, hung a large oil portrait of himself in his Georgetown bedroom.
His manners and dandyism misdirected attention from his inside skills. You wanted him on your side in a political knife fight. Says Tom Imeson, who worked for Hatfield for many years: “He was a very principled person. But he could be very tough from a political perspective.”
Hatfield behind closed doors brought cabinet secretaries to heel with his steely glare and rumbling voice. When the popular Gov. Tom McCall noisily threatened to run against Hatfield in 1972, the senator scared him away by telling him, “Come into the race if you want to. But I want to say one thing. I’ll shred you.”
In 1990, in his last campaign, Hatfield faced Democrat Harry Lonsdale, who used his personal fortune to attack Hatfield and take a momentary lead in the polls. Hatfield launched the first negative campaign ads of his career and within a few weeks turned Lonsdale into pulp.
No other Oregon politician did more to promote peace. Hatfield served in the Navy during World War II and visited Hiroshima soon after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on the city—an event that had a profound effect on Hatfield’s view of war. He opposed the Vietnam War long before public opinion turned against it. In 1965, he was the lone vote against a National Governors Association resolution requested by President Lyndon Johnson in support of the war.