WASHINGTON — The longest-serving Republican senator in history, a lawmaker who has passed more bills than any person in modern times, a man who is third in line for the presidency, is doing something he isn’t very good at — isn’t good at at all.
He’s stepping down.
He’s never done it before. Hasn’t had to. Orrin Grant Hatch began serving in the United States Senate as Jimmy Carter was becoming president; back in the day when Americans didn’t wear seat belts and smoked on airplanes and sent telegrams and no one knew how to spell magnetometer. He ran for office seven times, every six years, like clockwork. He won seven times, every six years, like clockwork.
The closest he came to losing was the first one, and he won that with 54 percent. The rest were virtual landslides. Democrats started drawing straws to see who had to run against him.
Administrations came and went. Carter gave way to Reagan who gave way to the first Bush who gave way to Clinton who gave way to the second Bush who gave way to Obama who gave way to Trump. Democrats were in power, then Republicans, then Democrats, then Republicans. Every cycle, Washington-area real estate agents got rich. But not from Orrin Hatch, they didn’t. He and Elaine bought a six-bedroom house in Vienna, in suburban Virginia, and 42 years later they’re still there.
Washington, and the Senate, has seldom seen such longevity. Of the 1,974 people elected to the U.S. Senate since it began 229 years ago in 1789, only five of them — Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont — have served longer than Hatch of Utah. He seemed to be the definition of forever.
But then one day, not very long ago, the senator looked in the mirror and staring back at him was the one man he knew he couldn’t beat.
Courtesy of the longest-serving Republican senator in history, we’re on a tour of a place Orrin Hatch knows like the back of his hand: the U.S. Capitol.
On a day when Congress is in recess, he’s taking us through the warrens and tunnels, the passageways and back corridors, past the “Senators Only” and “Off Limits” signs, to show us his various offices and hangouts and talk about his decision to finally leave it all behind.
There’s his desk on the floor of the Senate chamber — right off the aisle on the second row, directly behind the majority leader’s desk. “Right where he wants me,” says Hatch.
He points to another desk, on the far right next to the wall. That was where he started out. It was from there, as a mere rookie, that he orchestrated a five-week filibuster that doomed a labor law reform bill championed by the liberals and marked him forevermore as a conservative bulldog. “That was an all-important battle,” says Hatch, who has always been his best P.R. person. “If we hadn’t won it, the country would be gone today, in the sense that we know it. It would have given Democrats absolute control.”
There are the cloak rooms on either side of the Senate floor. The one on the left, the Republican cloakroom, Hatch explains, “is where the deals are cut.” The one on the right, the President's Room, is a lounge with comfortable chairs, where deal-making is strictly verboten.
Hatch moves comfortably from room to room, like he’s been here before, and before, and before. “You behaving yourselves?” the senator asks casually as he passes two security guards — you can only imagine how many times he’s used that greeting before, and how many times the guards have responded, “Oh yes sir, trying to.”
Down the hall, there’s the office reserved for the president pro tempore of the Senate. As the most senior senator of the majority party, Hatch became pro tempore — a Latin phrase meaning “for the time being” — in January 2015, making him presiding officer of the Senate and third in line of succession to the presidency of the United States, behind only the vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives. The ornate office has a chandelier that once hung in the White House, a portrait of Lincoln that was used as the model for his likeness on the penny, and a large round conference table where, Hatch explains, world leaders meet to discuss world leader type things.
To climax the tour he takes us to his Capitol hideaway office on the third floor. All senators have a hideaway, but this one is special. It used to belong to Ted Kennedy, Hatch’s political opposite and best friend in the Senate. When Kennedy died in 2009, Hatch asked for and got the office.
He’s full of Kennedy stories. “We fought each other tooth and nail, but I could get him to agree to things no one else could get him to,” he says. He speaks specifically about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, a law Hatch calls “without a doubt one of the most important bills in history” — and one that might not have passed if Hatch hadn’t talked Kennedy into agreeing to introduce it when the Democrats were in charge.
Looking around the room, Hatch notices a painting of Kennedy’s — a scene of Hyannis Port — is not on the wall. Still looking out for his friend, he asks an aide if it might have been stolen.
No, he’s told. The Capitol archivists have been coming around collecting historical items they want to preserve. It also explains why there were moving boxes at the pro tem office.
The 'hard job'
On the ride in the subway that connects the Capitol with his office in the Senate Hart Office Building — his working office where he spends the bulk of his time; the one the public sees — Hatch, who will turn 85 in March, massages his right knee. “I should get it replaced,” he says.
He might have had the surgery years ago, but who could find the time? Agree or disagree with Orrin Hatch’s politics, but no one has ever disputed his work ethic. In his 42 years in the Senate he has passed just under 800 bills — and could go over the 800 mark before this Congress is finished. That’s far more than anyone in the past half-century, maybe more than anyone ever. (The Library of Congress, which keeps track of such things, notes that ways of giving credit for bills has varied over the years, making it hard to compare then and now. But Hatch, for sure, has no modern peer. In the 114th Congress, for example, comprising the last two years of the Obama presidency, Hatch sponsored or co-sponsored 45 bills that were signed into law — by far the most of anyone in the Senate and three times the Senate average.)
“I’m proud of passing 800 bills,” Hatch answers when asked what he’s most proud of in his long tenure. “I’m proud of being the longest-serving Republican in history; I’m proud of being one of the few senators who has been chairman of three major committees.
“I still go long hours every day,” he adds. “This is a hard job, if you do it right. If you don’t want to do it right you can have a pretty easy time; just stroll around and act important. That’s easy.”
Working harder, an underdog beating the odds, has been Hatch’s narrative ever since he rode it to Washington in the first place.
He was a 42-year-old attorney practicing in Salt Lake City, a native of Pittsburgh, not that well known, with no political experience, when he came out of nowhere to best Ted Moss in 1976, 54 percent to 45 percent. It didn’t make sense on any number of levels. Moss was a popular incumbent who had won three previous elections. The country was still fed up with Republicans because of Nixon, as evidenced by Democrat Jimmy Carter out-dueling Nixon replacement Gerald Ford for the presidency. Hatch’s biggest endorsement in '76 came from Ronald Reagan, whom Hatch had stumped for in 36 states only to see Reagan lose the Republican nomination to Ford.
In his endorsement telegram, Reagan called Orrin “Warren.”
“Nobody in their right mind thought Orrin Hatch should be a U.S. senator. Nobody thought Ted Moss could be beaten,” Hatch says, never tiring of telling the story. “I was raised in poverty in Pittsburgh; I really had nothing but good parents who worked hard and taught me to love people from whatever walk of life and respect them.”
He thought about following his dad as a metal lather, but instead went to BYU when a $25 academic scholarship showed up in the mail.
To this day he’s not sure how that scholarship materialized. “Maybe my parents sent it,” he muses. His mother was keen on him going to college. “But I don’t know where they’d have found $25.
“I was so impressed with that; $25 was a lot of money back then,” he says. “So I went to BYU and fell in love with learning and of course the rest is history.”
He was challenged by popular Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson in his first bid for re-election in 1982 and won 58 percent to 41. In 1988 he received 67 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Brian Moss, Ted Moss’ son. In the next four elections he won by margins of 69-28, 66-31, 62-31 and 65-30.
“The people who ran against me weren’t pushovers; they were good candidates,” Hatch says, reflecting on the improbable winning streak. “I actually believe I was destined to do this. I’m not saying it was divinely sanctioned, but it could very well have been.”
What 'went wrong'
The years, though, have taken their mortal toll. Forty-two years of flying the Delta nonstop between Salt Lake City International and Reagan National in D.C. at least once and usually twice a month, traveling to most of the countries on Earth, running an office the size of a small company, herding conservative nominees onto the Supreme Court, campaigning every six years for yourself and every two years for colleagues …
“I’m pretty worn out,” Hatch confesses, saying something no one running for office would ever think to utter.
As evidence, he wears a hearing aid, he limps. But the biggest problem by far is his eyesight.
“I’ve always had bad eyesight,” he says. “I did have one operation that allowed me not to use eyeglasses for years, which was a blessing. But as I’ve gotten older, my vision has not improved, it’s degraded.”
Two years ago, he had surgery on his eyes that greatly furthered the decline.
“The procedure he had went wrong,” says Matt Whitlock, Hatch’s deputy chief of staff and communications director. “Instead of improving things, it ended up knocking out about 60 percent of his vision. Since then he’s been trying to work through it. Even 5 to 6 feet away, things are blurry.
“One of the biggest frustrations is not being able to see who’s approaching him. He’s been in conversations with people and they’d put out their hand and his peripheral vision is just shot, so they’d think, ‘Why isn’t he taking my hand? What’s going on?’ They’d think he was losing his memory or declining in that way, when really, it’s that he can’t see.”
Hatch is more sanguine about the issue. “I don’t want to overemphasize my eyes because I’ve been able to handle this for a number of years now and not only do a credible job but one of the best jobs in the Senate,” he says.
“But the fact is I can’t see very well and that bothers me a lot. When you’re chairing committees, seeing the faces and expressions of others is really part of it; it’s very important. I can see them, but not very well. I’m still good at reading body language, but I was a lot better at it when I could see.”
It’s helped, the past four years, to be surrounded by a police detail that surrounds him wherever he goes. Ever since being elected president pro tempore, he’s had the mandatory added security. He doesn’t have to drive anywhere. He travels in the middle car of a three-car police escort to and from the office. At night a police car sits outside his house in Vienna.
“They’ve become my pals,” says Hatch of the officers. Sometimes they go to Costco and eat hot dogs together.
Passing the baton
Leaving the Senate and all its trappings isn’t easy. Few do so voluntarily. Of the five men in history who have spent more time in the Senate than Hatch, the first four — Robert Byrd (51 years, five months), Daniel Inouye (49 years, 11 months), Strom Thurmond (47 years, five months) and Ted Kennedy (46 years, nine months) — died in office. All were contemporaries; each time, Hatch was there when it happened. (The fifth, Patrick Leahy, at 43 years, 11 months, is still serving).
Watching them leave that way didn’t shape his decision to leave, he says. What did shape his decision was worrying about measuring up to his own high bar.
“I didn’t want to stay here so long that I wasn’t going to be as effective as I’ve always been,” he says.
About this time a year ago, even as President Donald Trump was publicly urging Hatch to run for re-election, Hatch reached for the phone and called Mitt Romney.
“I thought if I could find somebody to replace me and hopefully do a good job here, I’d be happy to retire,” says Hatch. “I went to Mitt and talked him into running. Getting him to commit made me feel better about it.”
Sen. Hatch’s final day will be Jan. 3, 2019, when the 115th Congress officially adjourns. He will have logged exactly 42 years and two days in office. The next day, Senator Romney, his designated heir, will start day one.62 comments on this story
Orrin and Elaine plan to put the big house in Vienna up for sale. Once it sells, they will relocate full time to their condominium in Salt Lake City. "It's not a big home like here," Hatch says. "But I consider Utah home. It doesn't mean I won't come back (to Washington) …"
He lets the thought hang.
It won't be as a U.S. senator.
“I’ll miss it, there’s no use kidding,” says Hatch. “I’m good at it and I’ll miss it.”
That is the longest-serving Republican senator in history’s concession speech. Or as close to one as you’re ever going to get.