Opinion: A tribute to Orrin Hatch, a fighter who got things done
He had the courage not only to reach across the aisle, but to forge steel-cable suspension bridges across it in ways few modern politicians would dare
From a poverty stricken pugilist in Pittsburgh to a politician from Utah who served longer than any other Republican senator in history, Orrin Hatch was a true-to-life rags-to-riches Horatio Alger success story.
Or maybe he is better described as the originator of the “Utah way,” a rock-ribbed conservative who not only had the courage to reach across the aisle but who could unabashedly forge steel-cable suspension bridges across it.
Hatch, who died Saturday at the age of 88, not only co-sponsored groundbreaking legislation, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, with liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, he forged a genuine friendship with Kennedy. He helped Kennedy through a rough stretch in his life, then wrote a love song for Kennedy and his wife, Vickie; one Hatch told the Deseret News brought tears to the Massachusetts senator’s eyes.
Later, Kennedy spoke to about 200 missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Faneuil Hall in Boston. When Hatch’s mother passed away, Kennedy and his wife flew unannounced to Utah to attend the funeral.
There was nothing fake about that friendship, nor about the principles Hatch espoused. The New York Times quoted Hatch as saying the two were a “legislative odd couple.” But together they forged deals on laws affecting “public health, biomedical research, AIDS, child care, summer job programs and civil rights for people who are disabled.”
It would be hard to imagine someone with that kind of political courage today — a Republican who would dare to partner with, say, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Yes, Hatch served in an age before today’s ultra-partisan politics-as-bloodsport cynicism took hold of statehouses and the nation’s capital. But his proclivity to cross the aisle still required courage, and it was copied by few, if any.
But it got things done.
The compromises Hatch and Kennedy forged brought resolution to controversial issues. Today’s endless battles over things such as health care and immigration could use such a cooperative spirit.
Hatch’s greatest legacy is not that he served 42 years in the U.S. Senate. It is that he was an effective lawmaker.
But then, Hatch leaves many legacies. Among them was his work on behalf of religious liberty. He sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law, which prevents federal officials from interfering with religious practices without proper cause, has become more important in recent years as Washington has tried to intrude on the free exercise of religion. In 2020, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Hatch as its Canterbury Medalist.
At the time, Becket President Mark Rienzi said, “Hatch’s legacy of championing protections for people of all faiths — and working across partisan lines to do so — has greatly strengthened religious liberty in the United States.”
Hatch also knew how to have fun along the way. Among his other famous friends was boxing legend Muhammad Ali. News accounts said they met in 1988 when Ali came to Hatch’s office to thank him for helping a friend get a federal post.
Older Utahns will remember how a spirited Ali came to Utah later that year to help Hatch campaign for reelection against Democrat Brian Moss.
″I think he (Hatch) is the greatest, with greatest with a capital ‘G,’” Ali told The Associated Press in 1988. ″I don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to describe the respect I have for him as a human being.″ The two remained friends for decades, and Hatch spoke at Ali’s funeral.
As unlikely as that friendship may have seemed to the world, it was a natural for Hatch, who had been an amateur boxer.
Hatch was born into poverty. As the Deseret News described it in 2003, he grew up in Pittsburgh “in a ramshackle house that used a billboard for one wall.” He learned how to fight to survive against the bullies who made fun of his poverty. But, obviously, he learned how to make friends, as well, and he learned how to rise above.
It’s safe to say Utah, and the United States, have never seen a leader like Orrin Hatch before, and are unlikely to see one quite like him again. Whether they agreed with his politics or not, Americans could not argue against his sincerity, his tenacity and his determination.
Nor can it be denied that he left this world a lot better than he found it.