The role of principles in politics

Special to the Times

Square Peg

Confessions of a Citizen Senator

Orrin Hatch

Basic Books: 272 pages, $25



One of the inevitable things that happens when you hold public office, according to Sen. Orrin Hatch, is that “at some point, an old friend will pull you aside in angry bewilderment and demand to know when you lost your principles.”

“What they are really asking,” he goes on to say, “is when did you stop agreeing either with their opinion about a specific issue or, more troubling, an opinion they presumed you shared. Their passion often flows from the common assumption that their view and their view alone is based on principle, and that adherence to a contrary position can be the result of a hidden character flaw, stubborn ignorance, or craven submission to political expediency.”

The Utah Republican, who’d been elected to the Senate in 1976 as an ultraconservative, found himself being booed by an unruly bunch of ultraconservatives at Utah’s Republican 2000 convention. Despite his solid record of supporting the rights of gun owners, Hatch’s co-sponsorship of a crime bill with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy containing some minor concessions on the matter of guns made him a traitor in their eyes. In effect, what was being held against him were his years of experience as a conscientious, skillful and effective legislator.

Although it bears the subtitle “Confessions of a Citizen Senator,” Hatch’s political memoir “Square Peg” does not belong to the soul-baring, gut-spilling confessional genre. What it does do -- with humor, acumen and a reasonable degree of candor -- is set forth its author’s general values and beliefs, explain how he got involved in politics and offer a lucid, knowledgeable and illuminating account of the workings of the political process.

Hatch worked with California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman on the 1984 Orphan Drug Act to speed up approval on drugs to treat rare diseases, as well as legislation on dietary supplements, pharmaceutical patents and generic drugs. Together with Ted Kennedy, Hatch drafted legislation to help states provide health insurance for the children of the working poor.

More recently, Hatch, a staunch supporter of the anti-abortion movement, incurred displeasure among the anti-abortionists because of his well-reasoned and downright compassionate stand in favor of regulated stem cell research.

Both Democrats and Republicans could gain from reading this book. This is equally true of those on the left who automatically and indiscriminately hate and distrust all conservatives and those on the right who demonize liberals and consider it treasonous for their elected representatives to work with them. Many who might pigeonhole Hatch as a single-minded politician might be amazed to learn from this book that he is also a dedicated songwriter whose work has been recorded by Gladys Knight, among others.


Although himself one of the more conservative Republicans and certainly no stranger to partisan politics, Hatch wants to remind us that participating in the political process, putting together coalitions and working out compromises with members of the other party should not be branded as “selling out” one’s principles. Discussing Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords’ decision to become a Democrat, Hatch thinks Jeffords acted out of principle, not expediency: “The principles and concerns most important to him were more closely aligned with the ... Democrats than ... Republicans.”

But before going overboard in admiring Hatch’s decency, integrity and common sense, it should be noted that in discussing Jeffords’ party switch, he completely elides the little matter of the 2000 election, a vexed process that ended up giving the American people a president who had actually received fewer popular votes than his opponent. Then again, this question has been so consistently downplayed by the supposedly “liberal” media, Hatch’s elision is, sadly, not all that egregious.

Hatch’s ability to see beyond labels is evident in his account of the role played by the AFL-CIO in the defeat of communism. “One of the front-line soldiers in the Cold War,” he tells us, “was Irving Brown, the AFL-CIO’s representative in Europe.” Based in Paris, a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Brown fought for more than five decades to defend democracy and free trade unionism. “In the late 1970s,” Hatch recalls, “he came to see me, even though I had recently led the opposition in defeating his organization’s top domestic priority, Labor Law Reform.”

When Brown told Hatch of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement in Poland, Hatch was willing to lend a hand. Yet Hatch also describes his successful battle to defeat the union-backed Labor Law Reform bill in 1978 as one of the signal accomplishments of his career. One wonders what makes trade unions so attractive to him when they’re in Poland yet so repugnant when they’re in America. Missing from this memoir is a sense of how Hatch, a former Democrat and son of a union man, came to see things so differently.


Hatch also writes about his 2000 run for the Republican presidential nomination. One of his more bizarre encounters with the voting public occurs in Iowa, where Hatch, campaigning against George W. Bush, is reprimanded by a man in the audience for being too hard on the former president.

“I think you’re getting yourself a little confused,” Hatch tried to explain. “I was talking about Governor Bush, not the former president. This time, it’s the son who is running, not the father.”

“I don’t think so,” the man replied. “You know, Bush looks good, all rested up and ready to go, years younger than when he left office.” Which only goes to show that when some people have made up their minds, no fact -- however obvious -- stands a chance of getting through.