Let me begin with a moment of confession. When I began coming to Washington, D.C., to teach journalism my first class sessions were held in the Mark Hatfield Library at the national headquarters of what has become the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. As a pro-life Democrat, I greatly admired the senator from Oregon, in part because of his willingness to infuriate people on both the political right and left.
Needless to say, I am paying close attention to the obituaries that are running after Hatfield's death. Suffice it to say that journalists still do not know how to label him.
But journalists will keep trying. The sprawling Los Angeles Times headline proclaims:
Mark O. Hatfield dies at 89; longtime Oregon senator was bedrock of moderate Republicanism
Hatfield was a devout Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and managed to negotiate common ground among the environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty foes, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents.
Yes, that's all in the headline. The "anti-abortion" language is a bit painful, I think, since Hatfield was someone who was known as a consistently pro-life public figure.
This language even showed up in the Washington Post obit -- which elected to call Hatfield a "liberal," in the context of the Republican party.
Former senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, whose liberal Republican politics during five terms in Congress made him an increasingly rare breed within his party, and who used his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee to denounce what he considered the “madness” of excessive defense spending, died Sunday evening in Portland, said Gerry Frank, a longtime friend and former aide. He was 89.
As a young Navy officer during World War II, Mr. Hatfield saw the devastation wrought by atomic warfare in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. That experience, coupled with his Baptist faith, were defining forces in shaping Mr. Hatfield’s political views during nearly half a century in elected office. He became an opponent of abortion, the death penalty and war -- a “consistently pro-life” politician, said Oregon political scientist Bill Lunch, “who took the religious injunction not to do harm to others seriously.”
During his three decades on Capitol Hill, Mr. Hatfield was one of the Senate’s most unwavering pacifists.
Meanwhile, the New York Times all but ignored the senator's faith and the role that his pro-life beliefs played in his achievements and struggles inside the DC Beltway (especially in terms of his strong support for science funds). Glance at it, if you wish. It's disturbingly shallow, for such a complex public figure.
It's interesting to watch journalists attempt to make sense of this man, struggling to figure out if he was a "cultural conservative" or not. He was consistently anti-war, yet he was also opposed to violence against the unborn (and, yes, I worded the second half of that sentence the way that Hatfield would have worded it). He was opposed by the Religious right, at times, but always remained close to Billy Graham and influence him quite a bit in the post-Watergate era.
For me, there are two keys to judging these obits. The first is obvious -- is the content of Hatfield's faith discussed, perhaps even in his own words.
The second is a pivotal biographical detail, as illustrated in this passage from the Los Angeles Times obit:
He joined the Navy and served as a landing craft officer during the World War II invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was one of the first U.S. troops to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped.
Those "inhuman, shock-ridden" scenes, as he later described them, inspired a lifetime of activism against war and nuclear weapons.
Thus, this man was a soldier who knew war and who also saw Hiroshima with his own eyes. And his faith commitment? This is a few paragraphs after the Hiroshima reference. As a young man and a political scientist:
... Hatfield tells of having reached a crisis in his faith akin to the "born again" experience of many evangelicals, but which in his case was more rational than emotional. If Jesus Christ is truly a divine savior, he reasoned during an intense moment of reflection, then the only possible response was to offer his entire life to that service.
"Define your own spiritual commitment," Hatfield wrote later in "Against the Grain: Reflections of a Rebel Republican," which he wrote in 2001 with Diane Solomon. "Energize your conscience. Use loving spirituality to infuse your personal, public and political acts. Take advantage of spiritual stewardship when dealing with political issues such as the environment, the needs of humans, the dangers of war."
Former staffer Lon Fendall, who wrote a book about what he describes as Hatfield's evangelical progressivism, "Stand Alone or Come Home" -- the advice Hatfield's father gave to his son about facing tough moral choices and relentless peer pressure -- compared his boss to the 18th century British politician William Wilberforce, whose evangelical Christian convictions spurred him to lead the fight to abolish slavery. Hatfield himself, who read widely in history and political biography, was keenly aware of Wilberforce's legacy and had written a preface to an abbreviated collection of his work.
"He said, 'You know, I've been doing these things in my life in particular ways, and I've come to the realization that here's a person centuries ago that did exactly the same things for many of the same reasons,' " Fendall said in an interview. "I think Hatfield was drawn to him because they both came to their personal faiths while already in politics and on their life pathway, and began to ask themselves, 'What is my life pathway?' I think Hatfield's calling as a believer was to take on a variety of issues that many other believers weren't ready to face."
To write about Hatfield, a journalist has to wrestle with Hiroshima and with the content of the senator's moral convictions -- all of them.
How many of the obits got this done? Please use the comments pages to share URLs. But stick to the journalism issues in the obituaries and tributes. We are not interested in comments that bash Hatfield from the left or the right.
Image: A 2007 file photo of Hatfield, visiting the Oregon legislature.