Mark O. Hatfield is one of the most significant politicians in Oregon’s history. He held office in the Oregon state legislature, spent two terms as governor, and had a thirty-year stint as Oregon’s US senator. His career is—in fact—fascinating for anyone interested in Oregon history, or broader American political history.
In his first term as governor, Hatfield got in an ugly fight about Oregon’s eugenics laws. Later on, he was chairman of the US Senate appropriations committee, which made him one of the most powerful people in Congress. In 1989, he was the first politician to be publicly outed by the LGBTQI rights group Act Up. In the early nineties, he was one of only two Republican senators to vote against the Gulf War. He was also the deciding Republican vote that killed off the balanced budget amendment, a then-popular conservative idea that would have likely have made public spending all but impossible.
All interesting stuff. You’d think that a biography of Mark Hatfield would probably spend a good amount on notable episodes like fights about forced sterilization, getting outed by gay rights advocates, or major conflicts in the halls of power about American military might. But, the latest biography of Hatfield—Mark O. Hatfield: Oregon Statesman (University of Oklahoma Press, 232 pages)—doesn’t do that.
Instead we find an incomplete portrait of the politician. University of New Mexico professor emeritus Richard W. Etulain spends the bulk of his book on Hatfield’s two terms as governor, and relegates his much more significant time in the senate to what’s essentially an epilogue. This isn’t to say that Hatfield’s time as governor isn’t worth examination and critique, but the book reads like the first 200 pages of a much longer work that didn’t materialize.
That, and Etulain’s treatment of Hatfield has too light a touch. The professor clearly admires his subject matter, and that’s a problem. Any history writer needs to be interested in what they’re writing or talking about, but liking your subject too much can edge biography into hagiography. Etulain crosses that boundary. He’s clearly a big fan of Hatfield, and his treatment of the subject matter suffers because of it.
Also, Etulain’s books is probably a bit early. Later this year Willamette University, Hatfield’s alma mater and former employer, is set to release papers of his that have been sealed for years. Those documents will be of immense value to future historians who wants to get into the details of one of Oregon’s longest-lived politicians.
A good Hatfield biography should contain multitudes. His career spanned decades of political evolution and infighting, and his personal and political life could make for a fascinating read. This isn’t it.
Richard W. Etulain speaks at Powell’s City of Books on Wed, June 1, at 7 pm.