April 25, 2022

RIP Orrin Hatch

In an age of ever-increasing partisanship, one senator had a remarkable ability to work across the aisle without compromising his conservative principles.

Orrin Grant Hatch, who died Saturday at age 88, played the piano, the organ, and the violin, and something about him so inspired Frank Zappa that he once recorded a song in his honor, a nifty guitar solo called “Orrin Hatch on Skis.”

Now that we have your attention: We lost a good and decent man this weekend, a refreshing character, a giant of American politics, and the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. Think about that.

Think, too, about the fact that Orrin Hatch retired without having overstayed his welcome. No one ever had to look at the feisty and visionary Mormon senator from Utah and mutter, “This guy should’ve called it quits years ago.” As his hometown paper, the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News, writes:

Hatch considered running for an eighth term in the Senate at the urging of then-President Donald Trump, whom he steadfastly supported. Health issues, failing eyesight in particular, caused Hatch to decide not to run. He announced his decision in his longtime Senate office wearing a pair of blue boxing gloves. “I was an amateur boxer in my youth,” he said, “and I’ve brought that fighting spirit with me to Washington. But every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves.”

And hang ‘em up he did. But Orrin Hatch, the son of a Pittsburgh-area plasterer, was remarkably effective throughout his 42-year Senate career, building strong friendships and effective working relationships with everyone from the tough-minded Trump to the “Liberal Lion” and leading reprobate of the Senate, Teddy Kennedy, whom Hatch considered a dear friend. More than 750 bills Hatch sponsored or cosponsored eventually became law, including the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program Act. When he retired in 2018, he’d passed more legislation into law than any other living senator, according to the civic foundation that bears his name. That long list included Donald Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, whose passage Hatch championed as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The most lasting and noteworthy of Hatch’s accomplishments, though, was his determined effort to reshape the American judiciary — and not only as a member and onetime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As National Review notes:

He also played a leading role in the conservative movement as a co-founder of the Federalist Society in 1982, an organization created to spread conservative ideas in the legal community. It has since become among the most influential foundations in the United States, with scores of its members holding top roles in government and the federal judiciary, including six of the Supreme Court’s current nine members [emphasis ours].

Hatch grew up in poverty, one of eight children, two of whom didn’t survive infancy and one of whom, his much-admired older brother Jesse, a B-24 nose gunner, was killed when his plane was shot down over Austria just three months before VE Day. Nevertheless, Hatch became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. at Brigham Young University in 1959, then a law degree three years later at Pittsburgh, before moving to Utah in 1969. In 1976, during a tough post-Watergate cycle for Republicans, Hatch won election to the U.S. Senate in his first attempt, knocking off three-term incumbent Democrat Frank Moss.

Hatch himself was on the short list of potential Supreme Court nominees for Ronald Reagan, and, while on the Judiciary Committee, he played a central role in 15 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, including his noble and stalwart defense of Clarence Thomas. Hatch had a big heart and an abundance of compassion, but he didn’t suffer fools. More than one journalist learned this the hard way.

As the editors of The Wall Street Journal note: “Hatch was among the conservatives who rose to power to correct the Democratic failures of the 1960s and '70s. They are leaving us now, year by year, but their work restored the country’s military strength and economic vigor. We owe it to their legacy to do it again.”

Indeed, as The Deseret News points out, “The National Taxpayers’ Union recognized Hatch for his fiscal responsibility, and [he] was dubbed by others ‘Mr. Free Enterprise,’ ‘Guardian of Small Business,’ and ‘Mr. Constitution.’” He was also dubbed “Patriot,” and deservedly so.

In 2018, President Trump awarded the newly retired Utah senator the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hatch was a “true warrior for our country, for liberty, and for his beloved state of Utah,” the former president said in a statement Saturday. “He was as wise as he was kind, and as tough as he was smart — he loved America and his contributions to our country were tremendous. His legacy will surely live on through the many lives he impacted. May God bless Orrin Hatch.”

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