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The centennial celebration of Republican Sen. Mark O. Hatfield’s birth provides a cautionary tale for Oregonians.

Hatfield, who also served Oregon as a state legislator, secretary of state and governor, was born July 12, 1922, in the mill town of Dallas. He died Aug. 7, 2011.

He remains one of the most revered and influential politicians in modern Oregon history. Discussing Hatfield’s 100th birthday, a commentator on the social media site Reddit said, “If you have a Mount Rushmore of Oregon Politicians, it would be Tom McCall, Mark Hatfield, Wayne Morse, and then probably someone much earlier like Oswald West.”

Hatfield’s public service amounted to an argument against stereotypes. His Los Angeles Times obituary read:

“Mark O. Hatfield, whose [30] years as Oregon’s U.S. senator illuminated his conviction that Republicans could be God-fearing conservatives and also passionate advocates for ending wars and racial discrimination, has died. He was 89.

“Hatfield, the bedrock of Oregon’s once-robust tradition of moderate Republicanism, was a devout evangelical Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and for years managed to negotiate common ground among the contentious environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty opponents, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents in a state famous for its rollicking political diversity.”

So why is his centennial celebration a cautionary tale?

When great men and women pass on, we subsequently tend to oversimply their strengths, ignore the nuances of their decisions and sidestep their flaws. We interpret, or misinterpret, their words and deeds to back our own beliefs and desires. 

Photographer Charles “Visko” Hatfield made headlines at the centennial celebration, hosted by the Oregon Historical Society, when he doubted that his father would recognize today’s Portland, with its physical and social deterioration, and Oregon, with its political and social polarization that has supplanted rollicking diversity.

Conservatives pounced on Visko’s words as an indictment of the governing Democratic structure. True. At least in part. Yet in doing so, they illustrated the problem. Visko was talking about politicians and government leaders across the board, not just Democrats.

“Stop fighting each other and start working with each other,” he said.

Citing his father’s example, Visko called for operating from the political middle ground: “That is where discourse can be shared, compromise can be celebrated. It is what the average Oregonian expects.”

Visko said later in a radio interview that his critique, which included that politicians have abdicated responsibility in favor of their own self-interests, extends to cities and towns across the nation. He emphasized that his father believed in attacking bad policies, not the politicians themselves.

Hatfield developed effective rapport with such Democratic stalwarts as Sens. Robert Byrd and the unabashedly liberal Ted Kennedy. Within the Oregon delegation, he was closer to Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin than fellow Republican Sen. Bob Packwood.

Hatfield’s official Senate biography says he “legislated to the beat of his own drum during his three decades of Senate service. Senator Hatfield often placed conscience before partisanship and remained steadfast in his views, earning him both admiration and criticism from his colleagues.”

That included standing up to his party by casting what became the deciding vote against the Balanced Budget Amendment.

It is difficult today to sustain a political career as a maverick, as evidenced by former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson. Acclaimed for insightful, independent thinking while in the Legislature, she was pilloried by former colleagues the moment she launched an outsider campaign for governor, running as an unaffiliated candidate.

The Republican party was changing even as Hatfield was exiting public office. It would be difficult for moderate Hatfield to exist in today’s party, just as middle-of-the-road former Gov. John Kitzhaber no longer fits the progressive Democratic party.

Hatfield strived for a consistency of values that seems quaint in contemporary times. Fully pro-life, he was anti-abortion, anti-capital punishment, anti-war.

He lived his faith but not blindly. In a 1979 essay on Christian higher education, he praised the education provided at George Fox College, where he later taught.

“Too many of our churches and colleges have been ‘cookie cutter’ institutions. They have turned out a young person with a predictable, orthodox set of ideas, but have not created an environment in which ideas are developed and tested, so that they can be defended,” he wrote in the college alumni magazine.

Whereas at George Fox, he said, “There is the willingness to subject every concept and idea, even the existence of God, to discussion and honest doubt. The ‘hot house’ Christian young person who has never done this will flounder in the real world, which is filled with skeptics and practicing pagans. We do no favors to spoon feed to our youth the beliefs and ideas which we hold.”

Yet for all his consistencies, Hatfield was inconsistent. Undoubtedly with an eye on becoming vice president, in 1968 he supported presidential candidate Richard Nixon, who plunged America deeper into the Vietnam War.

To win his final re-election in 1990, against Democrat Harry Lonsdale, he ultimately resorted to negative campaigning.

Most damning, Hatfield’s certitude about his own virtuousness eventually clouded his ethical judgment, an affliction that besets many a politician. He had earned the nickname of “St. Mark” in both admiration and derision. Yet he fell into several political, personal and/or financial issues that created ethical concerns.

Alas, the problem with ever putting anyone on a pedestal is they tend to fall off. Still, today’s public and today’s politicians could learn from Hatfield while keeping the context and totality of his life in mind. As of his 100th birthday, his papers at Willamette University and oral histories at the Oregon Historical Society are open for research.

Former Hatfield aides Jim Fitzhenry, Sean O'Hollaren, Doug Pahl and Kerry Tymchuk, who heads the historical society, reflected on the senator’s values in a July 6 commentary in the Portland Tribune. They cited three essential lessons worth heeding:

• Respect our system of government.

• Love thy neighbor.

• Your values are more important than your re-election.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.comFacebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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