Hatch Is Presidential Critic, Backer in Tumultuous Week
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 1998; Page A08
As far as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is concerned, if President Clinton had done the right thing throughout this tumultuous week, he would be out of harm's way. Clinton did well with Thursday's anti-terrorist bombing raids, Hatch said, but blew a big opportunity on the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.
"I want to help him, he's a human being," Hatch said in a telephone interview late this week. "He's president of the United States, and I don't want to see an unnecessary impeachment hearing. I don't wish anybody any harm."
First as a Clinton critic on Lewinsky, then as the president's cheerleader after the bombing raids, this neat-as-a-pin conservative has been one of the week's most visible talking heads.
In the days before Clinton's Monday statement on the Lewinsky affair, Hatch was practically sending up flares so the White House would know what to do. His formula for absolution: "Hopefully he will talk square with the American people," Hatch said at a Salt Lake City news conference. "To me it's the one thing that he can do that might not only save his presidency, but allow him to finish the presidency . . . at least with some feeling of accommodation on the part of the American people."
When Clinton did not come clean to his satisfaction, and, instead, took umbrage at independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Hatch was about ready to "blow my cork," he said on-camera. Off-camera at NBC News, he called Clinton "a jerk" and the speech "pathetic."
"But only in regard to his treatment of Ken Starr," Hatch said later. Despite obvious irritation at what he called "a pattern of dissimulation and legal hair-splitting," and "even though he didn't apologize or ask for forgiveness," Hatch took comfort "because [Clinton] said he takes responsibility."
And three days later, when Clinton ordered the bombing raids, Hatch was one of those who dismissed out of hand any talk that the president was trying to steer attention away from his personal difficulties. "These attacks were more than justified, and more than overdue," he said. "I am personally glad that president is implementing a[n] aggressive miliary response." Hatch urged further action in "a solid campaign rather than a momentary surge of limited strikes."
So what is it that makes Hatch, 64, a four-term conservative who has no personal relationship with Clinton and whose politics most of the time are as far away from Clinton's as it is possible to be, such an authority on presidential behavior?
"Not because I wanted to be," he said. "I just couldn't avoid it."
One thing is availability: In the August doldrums, when most lawmakers are campaigning, traveling or fishing, Hatch was reachable. Another thing is his job: as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is paid, in part, to have an opinion about impeachment. And finally, there is his appearance: the well-scrubbed, prim-lipped conservative has a probity about him that can reassure or irritate, but which seldom can be ignored.
Still, counseled a longtime friend, former senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), always remember that what you see with Hatch is not always what you get: "He is a pragmatist, a very thoughtful guy and one of the fairest men I have ever dealt with."
Hatch and DeConcini both entered the Senate in 1977. As a young unknown, DeConcini said, Hatch was "establishing himself as a real right-winger," staking out antiabortion and tough law enforcement positions that gave him an identity as a conservative even as they annoyed his Democratic colleagues.
But the GOP's Senate takeover in 1981 brought new responsibilities. Hatch was named chairman of the Labor Committee, with Sen. Edward F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), his polar opposite ideologically, as his ranking minority member.
"Orrin Hatch grew immensely," said DeConcini, who alternated the chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee with Hatch for 12 years. "He clearly understood that to lead, you have to bring people within your umbrella as long as you don't sell your principles."
Hatch's longtime friendship with Kennedy, forged during years of often dramatically successful consensus-building on issues ranging from children's health to job training, is one of the Senate's oddities. Kennedy painted a framed picture of his family's Hyannis retreat and gave it to Hatch to hang in his office. Hatch composed a song to celebrate the marriage of Kennedy and his wife, Victoria.
Hatch's pragmatism was also on subtle display this week during the buildup to Clinton's Lewinsky statement. Inserted within the snippets of advice to the president was a message to those GOP colleagues anxious to bring Clinton to the dock.
"I have a feeling that if all that's involved here is the president lying under oath, which is terribly serious, [but done] to protect his wife and daughter from serious pain, the American people will be willing to wait until the year 2000 to replace him," Hatch said on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday. "I just think that's the way it's going to be. I think the polls show that, and I don't think the people in the House of Representatives will fail to recognize that."
Still, after Monday night's speech, forgiveness may be a hard sell. "I was all prepared to say we should get this behind us," Hatch said Thursday, still "disgusted" that Clinton's performance did not conform to his wishes. "If I hadn't laid it all out, maybe I wouldn't be commenting so much."
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