It may be safe to say no other Utahn ever has had as much impact on the day-to-day workings of American life than Sen. Orrin Hatch. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics, you would have trouble denying that the more than 800 bills he pushed into law during 42 years of service have helped mold 21st century America.
As either the ranking member or chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he has had an impact on the appointment and confirmation of every current member of the Supreme Court.
Hatch gave his final speech in the U.S. Senate this week — his farewell to a nation he has served ably through seven terms. It’s doubtful Utah will see another like him for a long time.
Hatch may be best known today as the longest serving Republican senator in U.S. history, a distinguished gray-haired fixture prone to defending President Trump and conservative principles. But not so long ago, he was known as the energetic young Republican who forged a lasting friendship with Sen. Ted Kennedy, perhaps the bluest member of the Democratic Party’s left wing.
That friendship led to the passage of several compromise bills, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a law strengthening the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty, which Hatch said he hopes becomes his enduring legacy.
His relationship with Kennedy obviously went beyond politics. Hatch, an accomplished songwriter, composed a love song for Kennedy and his wife, Vicki, in 1997. They shared many personal experiences outside political realms. When Kennedy died, Hatch wrote a touching tribute to him in Newsweek magazine.
That may seem like a quaint story from a long-forgotten time now. Hatch spent much of his speech this week lamenting the lack of civility in today’s Senate and calling for greater comity and unity. He described the Senate as in crisis, and the committee process as in shambles.
The truth of those concerns is readily apparent to any observer, and it doesn’t confine itself to the Senate. It’s unfortunate, however, that the value of cooperation and mutual respect seems to become so evident only when a politician leaves office. More members need to heed the call for civility before they're on their way out the door.
Hatch certainly has the credibility to speak of such things, given his long track record. It’s important to note, however, that the public is as culpable as any party to the current rancor. Hatch could befriend Kennedy years ago without fear of political consequences. As he noted in this week’s speech, the public isn’t likely to be as tolerant today.27 comments on this story
Compromise and mutual respect can result in good laws and send a signal to voters that country is more important than partisanship. But that sort of cooperation won’t happen until lawmakers who still have plenty to lose have the courage to stand up and lead the way.
For now, Utah and the U.S. Senate can reflect on the long career of a man who often seemed full of surprises, whether it was bringing boxing legend Muhammad Ali to Utah to campaign for him or making cameo appearances on television shows or in a movie.
Sen. Orrin Hatch was a master at his craft, an effective lawmaker who ultimately possessed the rarest of character traits — the ability to voluntarily relinquish power. Utahns owe him thanks, and their best wishes for a fulfilling retirement.