As U.S. body politics shattered over the past decade, some dedicated men and women worked to keep left and right together. This week we are mourning one of these leaders. “Senate gentleman” and one of the most prolific lawmakers in American history, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, who died Saturday at the age of 88.
I worked with Hatch for more than 15 years as a senior adviser to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his last Chief of Staff. The man represented a generation of legislators brought up in the virtues of bipartisanship and compromise. He was loved by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, making him an anomaly in polarized times.
So what was the secret behind his success? How did a strong conservative from the American West earn the love and admiration of liberal icons like Ted Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg? How did he cross the traditional boundaries of right and left to become one of the most successful legislators of all time?
It is impossible to distill to a few hundred words the wisdom, gravel, charm, and empathy that led to Hatch’s success. But today’s leaders would do well to emulate his unique style of politics.
Contrary to the stock image of the country club Republican, Hatch was what I like to call a “Costco Republican.” The wholesale giant was his favorite hangout this weekend. Ask anyone who knew him: Costco was the only club membership he ever really cared about. He would go there every break to get Kirkland Signature shirts (yes, the same shirts for $ 19.99 that he would wear to the Senate) and a Costco hot dog (a personal favorite of his).
But the real purpose behind his Costco travels was to rub shoulders with everyday Utahns. In other words, Orrin’s people – the men and women who make up the backbone of American society. Hatch knew that if he lost touch with them, he would lose touch with himself and who he was: the junky son of a Pittsburgh steelworker who, through luck and skill, happened to be in the U.S. Senate.
When it came to legislation, Hatch was a champion in the long game. While many politicians measure time in days and news cycles, he thought for years and decades. As a relatively new employee, I coordinated with other Senate offices to pass intellectual property law. But at the last minute, the negotiations stalled and the chances of our bill being shot down.
Outside the Senate locker room, Hatch caught me looking depressed and frustrated – but did not let me stay that way for long.
“What is your problem? Did you think we would pass this legislation today?” he asked with a smile. “We get this thing passed, but this is only the beginning. Remember, we’re playing the long game here. This is a bill from several congresses.”
He was right. Congress passed the bill years later. Some of Hatch’s greatest legislative achievements, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, were the culmination of many years of work.
Hatch approached constituent service with the same patience, perseverance, and dedication. The story of Josh Holt is a living example. Mr. Holt, a native of Utahn, was arrested by Venezuelan authorities on false charges in 2016 and sentenced to months in prison. Hatch worked with three different Secretary of State and Presidents Obama and Trump to secure Mr Holt’s release. I was sitting next to Hatch as he spoke on the phone with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and persuaded him to agree to his release. Like many politicians, Mr Maduro Orrin received the Hatch treatment. It happened when relentless partisans found themselves negotiating with a man they were programmed to despise but ended up liking so much that they followed his plan.
This was one of Hatch’s greatest strengths. People might strongly disagree with his policy, but it required a great deal of effort not to like the man. It helped him make unlikely but strong friendships, including with Muhammad Ali (who asked Hatch to speak at his funeral), Senator Kennedy (who considered him one of his closest friends in the Senate, and Judge Ginsburg ( as Senator Hatch recommended to the President.) Clinton for the Supreme Court and who attended Hatch’s Presidential Freedom Medal Ceremony).
Hatch showed how to work outside the political culture with extreme polarization. Fight when necessary. But do it with dignity and show respect for your opponent. And always remember that politics is the art of persuasion, not humiliation.
That was the Hatch way. This is how he got his colleagues to agree to some of the most significant political reforms in the history of our nation, such as Hatch-Waxman, who helped create the modern generic pharmaceutical industry. And that was how he retired after passing more bills – 750 – than anyone alive at the time.
My experiences with the man and the insights he shared during his last decades of public service allow me to say this: If every member of Congress had the wisdom, character, integrity, and foresight of Orrin Hatch, our country would be stronger, more prosperous, and more united today. May the leaders of our nation honor his legacy by following his example.
Mr. Sandgren is the CEO of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. He served as a senior adviser to the Senate Judiciary Committee and as Senator Hatch’s Chief of Staff.
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