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Mark Hatfield: Citizen

| September 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

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Former Senator Mark Hatfield is remembered.

George Mitrovich

A few weeks back Mark Hatfield, the former governor and United States senator from Oregon, passed away. He was a life long Republican, but of a kind and type rarely seen today, save for Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York (there may be more but none pressing my memory).

I am a liberal Kennedy Democrat, but by philosophy and practice have never believed all relevant truth resides within one party. For me it is always about two things: 1) the person, and 2) issues.

What passes today for the Republican Party is shameful. This is neither Mr. Lincoln’s party nor Teddy Roosevelt’s; it is neither Mr. Eisenhower’s party nor even Mr. Reagan’s. It’s not that those now running for the Republican presidential nomination are bad people, they’re not (well, maybe Newt Gingrich), but their politics are dangerous to our country and its future.

Do I find, then, my party more virtuous than the party opposite? Not necessarily, for the Democratic Party has also sold its soul to Wall Street, and by those repeated acts of moral failure, economic royalists now control America – a fact President Obama has done little to challenge (something I deem the greatest single disappointment of his presidency).

While I am, as stated above, a liberal Kennedy Democrat, I am also a Christian, someone who believes my social conscience arise less from politics or party but from what I understand the life and teachings of Jesus to mean. Am I, therefore, a faithful disciple? No, more of a failed disciple, but a disciple nonetheless – for God’s grace is limitless and his/her forgiveness knows no bounds.

All of which is preface for writing this month about a 45-year friendship with Mark Hatfield, an individual who was both an extraordinary person and one whose stance on issues, beginning with his courageous opposition to the Vietnam War, reflected my own concerns; and whose politics were also informed by a deep commitment to the Christian faith.

So here’s the story of how that relationship began:

I first met Mark Hatfield in 1966 at the National Governor’s Conference in Los Angeles. I was working for California Lt. Governor Glenn Anderson, and before the conference at the Century Plaza Hotel I called the executive office in Salem, Oregon’s state capital, and asked if I might meet the Republican governor at the conference?

My request was granted and the governor set aside time for us to visit. You will understand when I say the substance of our conversation, 45-years on, is lost to me. But there is one memory of our meeting that has stayed with me – and will.

As our time together drew to a close, Governor Hatfield asked if he might say a prayer in our behalf. Lots of people have prayed for me in my life, prayers for which I am eternally grateful (may they continue), but no governor ever had.

My request to meet with him had less to do with politics, although Governor Hatfield was deemed one of the nation’s most promising young political leaders (he was then in his second term as Oregon’s governor), but to ask how he as a Christian faced the daunting challenges of living his faith in a difficult, demanding, and too often ethically challenged profession.

Many people took notice that week when a resolution in support of the Vietnam War was brought before the governors, a measure backed by the Johnson Administration, anxious to minimize mounting criticism of the war. Every governor voted for the resolution, but one. The one governor voting “no” was Mark Hatfield. It was hardly smart politics, but principles mattered more to Hatfield than political gain – and in time his heroic opposition to the war would mark his career as no other.

With his second term as governor coming to a close Hatfield ran for the United States Senate and won. Subsequently he would be reelected four times, thus becoming, at 30-years, the state’s longest serving U.S. senator.

The friendship that began in ’66 was renewed three-years later when I became press secretary to Senator Charles Goodell, Republican of New York. It continued following Goodell’s defeat, and I joined the staff of Senator Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa.

On a Sunday night in 1971 I watched a CBS White Paper on children in Vietnam whose fathers were American soldiers; children who had become outcasts in their homeland. It was a shocking story and before the documentary was over I found myself in tears.

The next morning I wrote a memo to Senator Hughes, seeking to convey my distress and anger at America’s abdication of these orphans, innocent victims of the war. That afternoon Hughes called me into his office. He said he had read my memo and shared my concern. He then asked whether legislative assistance might be found for the abandoned children. I suggested an alliance with Senator Hatfield, knowing he would understand the children’s tragic circumstances.

Hughes said I should proceed, which I did by calling one of Hatfield’s key legislative aides, Wes Michaelson, someone I knew would be sympathetic. We worked together to fashion what I remember as the Vietnam Children’s bill, co-authored by Hughes and Hatfield. (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson would later become the general-secretary of the Reformed Church in America and a strong voice for social justice and against war.)

In ’72, while changing planes in Denver, I ran into Senator Hatfield. Since we ended up on the same flight to Washington we sat together. Amid much reflecting on things past, including efforts to help the orphans of Vietnam, he said, “Few people will ever know the legislation we sought began with you, but I hope it will suffice that you know.”

In the grander scheme of things friends remember acts of kindness in their behalf, but what’s true for many of us is not always true of politicians. But Mark Hatfield was no ordinary “politician”, and it was consistent with his Christian faith and values to remember a staff person’s moral concern – even if he or she worked for someone else.

It is a misfortune of no small measure that too many of today’s politicians lack Hatfield’s character, character shaped by his deep Christian faith, a faith that never wavered when issues of social justice and peace needed addressing. In this he was not unlike the great British parliamentarian, William Wilberforce, who made it his life’s mission to keep England free of slavery; a fight that began in 1789 and did not end until his final piece of legislation passed in 1833. Similarly Hatfield was steadfast in his opposition to war, and in his 30-year Senate career never voted for a military authorization bill.

In his tribute written for God’s Politics, a blog by Jim Wallis & Friends, Granberg-Michaelson said of Hatfield, “Rarely have I seen anyone like him combine a courageous commitment to principle with a consistent respect for those of opposing views…Like so much of Mark Hatfield’s legacy, these are qualities so destructively absent from our present political climate.

This is the sixth tribute I’ve written of senators I knew, loved, and admired, but who passed too soon from our midst. All of whom – Charles Mathias of Maryland, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Harold Hughes, Charles Goodell, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and Bobby Kennedy – were men of faith, and each of whom, in their own way gave expression to their faith.

From the outset of his political career as a state representative in Oregon to the governor’s office and ultimately to the U.S. Senate, few public figures in my experience expressed their Christian faith with greater conviction on issues of poverty and discrimination, war and peace, than Mark Hatfield.

It isn’t that public figures that make no expressions of faith lack moral conviction, I know the opposite, but it is to say that those who do, like Hatfield, deserved to be remembered not alone for their political courage but for the faith that informed their values.

Other deserving tributes have been paid to the Gentleman from Oregon by people of far greater standing than me, but suffice it here to say few individuals in the public square were more faithful to their Christian witness than Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

To have known him was one of the great privileges of my life.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader and may be reached at gmitro35@gmail.com

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