From a poor pugilist in Pittsburgh to a politician in Utah who served longer than any other Republican senator in history, Orrin Hatch was a true rag picker to riches. Horatio Algiers hit.
Or perhaps he is best described as the originator of the “Utah way,” a rock-ribbed conservative who not only had the courage to cross the aisle, but was able to shamelessly forge steel cable suspension bridges across it.
Hatch, who died Saturday at the age of 88, not only co-sponsored groundbreaking legislation, like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, along with liberal icon Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, he forged a true friendship with Kennedy. He helped Kennedy through a difficult time in his life, then wrote a love song for Kennedy and his wife, Vickie; a Hatch told the Deseret News he had tears in his eyes at the Massachusetts senator.
Later, Kennedy spoke to about 200 missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Faneuil Hall in Boston. When Hatch’s mother died, Kennedy and his wife unexpectedly flew to Utah to attend the funeral.
There was nothing wrong with that friendship, or with the principles Hatch had adopted. The New York Times quoted Hatch as saying the two were an “odd legislative couple”. But together they reached agreements on laws affecting “public health, biomedical research, AIDS, child care, summer job programs and civil rights for people with disabilities.”
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, DN.Y. Yes, Hatch served in a time before today’s ultra-partisan political cynicism gripped state houses and the nation’s capital. But her propensity to cross the aisle still required courage, and she was copied by few, if any.
But it got things going.
The compromises that Hatch and Kennedy forged resolved some controversial issues. Today’s endless battles over issues such as health care and immigration could use such a spirit of cooperation.
Hatch’s greatest legacy isn’t that he served 42 years in the US Senate. He was an efficient legislator.
But then Hatch leaves many legacies. Among them was his work for religious freedom. He sponsored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law, which prevents federal officials from interfering with religious practices without cause, has become more prominent in recent years as Washington has attempted to interfere in the free exercise of religion. In 2020 the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty honored Hatch as a Canterbury Medalist.
At the time, Becket Chairman Mark Rienzi said: “Hatch’s legacy of advocating for the protections of people of all faiths – and working across partisan lines to do so – has significantly strengthened the freedom religious in the United States.
Hatch also knew how to have fun along the way. Among his other famous friends was boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Press accounts said they met in 1988 when Ali came to Hatch’s office to thank him for helping a friend get a federal job.
Older Utahns will remember how a fiery Ali came to Utah later that year to help Hatch campaign for re-election against Democrat Brian Moss.
“I think he (Hatch) is the tallest, with the tallest 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 this friendship might have seemed to the world, it was natural for Hatch, who had been an amateur boxer.
Hatch was born into poverty. As the Deseret News described him in 2003, he grew up in Pittsburgh “in a ramshackle house that used a billboard for a wall.” He learned to fight for survival against bullies who laughed at his poverty. But, of course, he also learned to make friends, and he learned to rise above them.
It’s safe to say that Utah and the United States have never seen a leader like Orrin Hatch before and are unlikely to see one like him again. Whether they agreed with his policy or not, Americans could not dispute his sincerity, tenacity and determination.
There’s also no denying that he left this world much better than he found it.