The Enduring Book of Mark

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

The timing was fitting: One week after the far right wing of the Republican Party held the economy hostage by trying to ram a balanced budget amendment down our throat, Mark Hatfield passed away. 

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.


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.

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.