For reporters who covered Orrin Hatch from the beginning, the news of his death Saturday night at age 88 evoked memories of the first U.S. senator to be characterized as “New Right.” A smartly-dressed attorney from Salt Lake City who had never held nor even sought office before, the young Hatch in 1976 stunned Utah Republicans by sweeping the state convention and winning nomination for U.S. senator.
Some of his success had to do with his forceful speaking style. Brigham Young University and University of Pittsburgh Law School graduate Hatch had an impressive record of swaying juries. But he also had the endorsement of Ronald Reagan, whom he had proudly supported in his almost-successful challenge to President Gerald Ford that year. His opponent was a Ford man and that didn’t count for much among Republicans who sent a delegation to the Republican National Convention completely committed to the Californian.
Reagan’s team in the Beehive State, including Republican State Chairman Dick Richards and State Sen. Doug Bischoff, mobilized campaign volunteers for Hatch. New national conservative leaders such as direct mail maestro Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich of the pro-family Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus all weighed in for their new political hero.
Like Reagan, Hatch campaigned as a strong abortion opponent, an opponent of giving away the Panama Canal, and for a hardline against the Soviet Union. In November, he demolished three-term Democratic Sen. Frank Moss with 56 percent of the vote — and a conservative star was born.
“Roarin’ Orrin” was what admirers dubbed him and when Viguerie wrote his 1981 book “The New Right: We’re Ready To Lead,” he was clearly thinking of Hatch. Golfing chums Hatch and Viguerie often spoke of the newly-minted senator from Utah running for president. But Hatch was fully committed to Reagan in 1980.
Sen. Hatch offered an eponymous amendment to the Constitution that would have overturned the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and restored oversight of abortion to the states. He sponsored the Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution 17 times and was in the front-lines fighting the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
As ranking Republican Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman from 1995-2001 and later from 2003-05, Hatch fought hard to place conservative judges on the Supreme Court. In 1991, he emerged as a chief defender of embattled Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and, during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee, the Utahan read passages of the “The Exorcist,” and made a case that many of witness Anita Hill’s claims of vile sexual verbalizing by Thomas were lifted from the horror novel.
President Reagan reportedly considered Hatch himself for the Supreme Court in 1987 and all signs were the Utah Republican was eager for the appointment. But because he was being considered for a position for which the salary was raised by the body in which he served, Hatch would have run into problems under the Ineligibility Clause of the Constitution.
There was a feeling among Hatch-watchers that, beginning in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, he began to mellow and behave less like the right-wing swashbuckler he initially was and more like the “establishment” Republicans who had fought him. Serving on the Senate Labor Committee with Ted Kennedy, Hatch developed a warm friendship with the Massachusetts Democrat. Some conservatives grumbled that this was the reason Hatch never pushed for tougher measures dealing with organized labor.
When Kennedy’s problems with drinking became public, Hatch half-jokingly admonished that “I’m going to send the Mormon missionaries after you, Ted!” The Republican senator pointedly refused to campaign against Kennedy (“It would be like campaigning against my brother”), even in 1994 when his friend and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee.
Hatch also disappointed conservatives with his stand on immigration. He helped to sculpt H-1B visas (allowing U.S. employers to temporarily hire workers from abroad) and proposed the DREAM Act providing a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. He sharply criticized President Trump’s executive order banning immigration by Muslims from seven countries until better screening methods were developed.
Despite differences over immigration with Trump, Hatch had a convivial relationship with the 45th president. When the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Trump uttering crass words about women, the straight-laced husband and father of six denounced the language but steadfastly refused to rescind his endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee.
In 2012, some conservatives in Utah felt that, after 36 years in the Senate, Hatch had “gone native” and was no longer the lion of the right he once was. The senator’s supporters countered that his lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union was 89.5 percent and, in 2011, 100 percent. For whatever disappointments he had evoked on the right, Hatch won his first-ever contested primary by 2-to-1.
Six years later, he retired as the longest-serving senator from Utah. As senior Republican in the Senate, Hatch had been president pro tempore of the Senate and thus third in line to the presidency — the highest position in U.S. history ever held by a Mormon.
He never made it to the presidency — a brief campaign in 2000 died before the Iowa Caucuses — and never achieved his dream of sitting on the Supreme Court. But Orrin Grant Hatch remains a figure of consequence as the first “young lion” of modern conservatism in the Senate. While he arguably softened his roar as an “old lion,” conservatives who watched him from the beginning recalled him with warmth and respect. And many loved him.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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