Sen. Mark O. Hatfield’s unshakable opposition to war, legal abortion and capital punishment have earned him a reputation as a politician above politics.
The moral high ground under the Oregon Republican known as the Conscience of the Senate may be eroding, however, with revelations that he failed to report $9,300 in gifts from a university that was seeking federal funds and helped to channel millions of dollars to another school that admitted his daughter via a special procedure.
“There’s no doubt that he’s projected an image as something other than your common politician, but these revelations are an indication that he isn’t any different,” said Paddy McGuire, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party.
Hatfield waged an uncharacteristically nasty campaign for reelection to the Senate last year, but he was back in his customary role as a moral crusader during the Gulf War debate.
He was the only senator who voted against authorizing the U.S. use of force to get Iraq out of Kuwait and an alternative that authorized defensive force only. More recently, he was out on his quixotic limb once again, casting the lone vote against appropriating money to pay for the war.
“I’ve always said if you ask me a question I’ll give you my answer. I’m not going to ask you to agree with me, but don’t ask me if you’re expecting an answer that you want,” Hatfield said several weeks ago in describing the way he has operated through more than 40 years in elective office.
For all of Hatfield’s vaunted integrity, a number of ethical questions have come up during those years. Among them:
* His wife received $55,000 from Greek financier Basil A. Tsakos for “real estate services” in 1984, at the same time that Hatfield was promoting Tsakos’ plan for a trans-Africa oil pipeline. The Justice Department investigated but did not prosecute Hatfield. He gave the money to charity and was reelected that year.
* Harry Lonsdale, Hatfield’s Democratic opponent last year, questioned government-paid trips taken by Hatfield’s chief of staff and the aide’s actions as a director of a failed savings and loan. The aide denied he did anything wrong.
* Earlier this month, it was disclosed that Hatfield failed to report gifts of Steuben glass, an Audubon print and a porcelain statue from the president of the University of South Carolina. The gifts--and a full scholarship for Hatfield’s son--came at a time when the university was seeking a $16.3-million grant for an engineering center.
* The president of Oregon Health Sciences University, to which Hatfield had funneled more than $90 million over the last 10 years, personally admitted the senator’s daughter and three other students to the medical school there. Two admissions committee members quit in protest over the incident in 1989. The school president said this month, when it came to light, that there was no political motivation.
Hatfield has said he did not know that the gifts from the university president, a family friend, were worth more than $100 each and thus had to be reported. He has strenuously denied any connection between his actions and those of the two universities. In fact, he said, he led a drive to trim the federal funds requested by the University of South Carolina.
Hatfield is the senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is described in Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America as an “unorthodox combination of moral indignation and pork-barrel politics.”
To some, both traits make him an easy target.
“Mark Hatfield has established such a distinguished reputation for moral rectitude that any missteps by him, or even the appearance of missteps . . . loom larger in his case,” said Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University and an analyst for Oregon Public Television.
On top of that, Lunch said, Hatfield is influential and makes no secret of it. The result, he said, is that “people may come asking for favors in a way that may prove to be embarrassing.”
Hatfield’s friends and political allies have been steadfast in their support of the senator, whose outside activities include prayer meetings and writing religious books.
Some Oregon Democrats say that Hatfield’s halo is dimming--if he ever wore one.
“During the last campaign Mark stepped off his pedestal and got in the gutter and threw mud with the best of them,” said McGuire. He said the recent revelations show that, at the very least, Hatfield is “definitely guilty of gross insensitivity.”
Stanley Brand, a former counsel to the House Ethics Committee who now represents those the panel investigates, said there’s no written rule against Hatfield’s children receiving special treatment from the universities. As far as the art, he said, members of Congress routinely report such gifts late or make disclosures after the fact.
Hatfield is responding to the latest round of questions with reminders of his longstanding “fierce independence” from contributors, constituents and the White House.
“I’ve always said I’d be happy doing a lot of other things in life,” the senator, who has never lost an election, said earlier this year.
“I’m not going to play Faust and sell my soul to Mephistopheles for this business.”