Hats off for a grand American senator, Mark O. Hatfield, 1922-2011

by Gail Wells

Some people called former Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, who died Aug. 7 at age 89, "Saint Mark," for his outspoken Christian faith and his teetotaling habit.

Mark O. Hatfield was a man of integrity, but a saint he wasn't -- and thank goodness for that. He was the kind of leader many of us wish we had now precisely because he was not an ideologue. He was a pragmatic politician, skilled at negotiating the murky territory between doing what's right and doing what works.

As a liberal Democrat, cradle Oregonian and former constituent, I celebrate his progressive legacy, and I mourn him as the last of a political breed. His passing is a poignant reminder of a time when "moderate Republican" was not an oxymoron.

Oregonians of my generation grew up with Mark Hatfield. He was Gov. Hatfield when I was in grade school. The timber economy was booming, and our young governor was popular and well respected (not to mention dreamily handsome, something even an 11-year-old could appreciate). My father, a blue-collar Roosevelt Democrat, grudgingly approved of Hatfield, although he considered him one of the species of smooth-talking politicians who plays too much golf.

Hatfield took good care of Oregon's timber and agriculture economies, but he also favored the Endangered Species Act and wilderness protection. He was a strong voice for peace; his steadfast opposition to the Vietnam War earned him the ire of hawkish Republican colleagues and the enmity of President Lyndon Johnson. As Appropriations chairman in the 1980s, he consistently voted against military spending and managed to redirect some of the Pentagon's budget to social programs.

When I left Oregon for college in 1970, I was drawn to the burgeoning environmental movement, and my admiration for Hatfield waned. I was alarmed, like many Americans, at the widespread clear-cutting of federal forests in the West -- a policy Hatfield embraced -- and I faulted him for what seemed to me his blind support of Big Timber.

When Congress passed the controversial "timber buyout" legislation in 1984 -- an effort spearheaded by Hatfield -- many of us saw it as an unjustified bailout of the timber industry. The law allowed companies to withdraw from high-priced federal harvest contracts they'd agreed to in the heady 1970s, when timber prices were high. By 1984, prices had bottomed out, and nobody could log those sales profitably.

Hatfield argued that forcing companies to honor the high-priced contracts would put them out of business and plunge the Northwest into a depression. On the other side, environmentalists and free-market economists said that timber companies ought to have known they were operating in a volatile market and should have bid more carefully.

Since those days, I have come to see the situation in a more nuanced light. Hatfield understood that in Oregon, where more than half the forests are federally owned, timber had been essentially a public-private enterprise since the late 1950s, with the Forest Service a key player. This partnership seemed logical to most Oregonians through the '60s, '70s, and early '80s. Hatfield believed that a stream of federal timber could soften the ruthless booms and busts of a resource economy. The buyout eased a vital economic sector through an exceptionally rough time. Today, I believe Hatfield did the right thing.

I finally met Mark Hatfield in 1998, soon after he had retired from the Senate. I was working for the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and we had received a gift of valuable forestland. Dean George Brown decided to sell the land and use the proceeds to build a new research lab. That decision, to sell the forest -- and to a timber company! -- rather than to keep and manage it, earned Dean Brown the bitter enmity of some of his faculty. Brown and Hatfield were friends, and I wondered if they compared notes about how it felt to take an unpopular stand.

Because of his nearly five decades of public service, you can hardly travel anywhere in Oregon without running into something named after Mark Hatfield. He was respected because he exemplified civility and collaboration; he could work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He allowed his strong faith to guide his political views, but he never waved it like a crusader's flag. He was also consistent, opposing both abortion and the death penalty.

I am grateful he served Oregon so long and so well. I only wish there were more like him today.

Gail Wells is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a science writer who lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

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