Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Passing of a Giant: Senator Mark O. Hatfield (1922-2011)

Oregonians and indeed many Americans of all political stripes mourned the passing last week of a truly great politician whose statesmanship and bipartisanship seem almost like an anachronism in contrast to our current hyper-partisan, 24-hour news cycle-driven political gridlock. Former Oregon Sen. Mark O. Hatfield was a politician who transcended party and ideology and whose work led to true benefit for large numbers of people, not only those living in Oregon.

While many politicians are an abstraction to most people, impacting their lives only in indirect ways, Sen. Hatfield was personal and real in my life. My presence and success at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) as well as the flourishing of our Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology (DMICE) have their origins that can be attributed to Sen. Hatfield.

I personally would not be in Oregon were it not for the "earmark" established by Sen. Hatfield for OHSU under the National Library of Medicine (NLM) Integrated Advanced Management Information Systems (IAIMS) program in the 1980s. I know that political earmarks have a bad name now, but the IAIMS earmark to OHSU was an investment that launched nationally prominent programs in biomedical informatics and clinical epidemiology and shows that such investments can bring true and lasting value. From a financial standpoint, the returns on this investment have accrued manyfold times over for OHSU and the Oregon economy. And perhaps more importantly, the scientific accomplishments and training of future generations of professionals and leaders have even larger returns beyond the financial.

Sen. Hatfield may not have been an expert in informatics or clinical epidemiology, as few people were in the 1980s, but his attaching an earmark to the IAIMS initiative shows that in the 1980s, he had the foresight to see the future potential for these fields in health and biomedicine. He was also a tireless crusader for all types of funding for biomedical research as well as higher education throughout his career.

Sen. Hatfield's political views were different but consistent. He truly matched a label we almost never see any more, namely a "liberal Republican." Sen. Hatfield characterized the proper meaning of the word "liberal." He was a proponent of free markets and economic liberty when they made practical sense, but also recognized when they did not, such as in education and health care. He was an advocate for national defense but opposed military adventurism, best exemplified by being a World War II veteran but also an early opponent of the Vietnam War. Sen. Hatfield recognized the proper role of government in a capitalist society, and it is unfortunate that modern opponents of true liberalism have been able to so successfully redefine the word and the political meaning and actions of those who are true liberals.

I did not agree with all of Sen. Hatfield's political positions. For example, his pacifism and reverence for life led him to oppose the reproductive rights of women. However, I can laud him for consistency in his views of truly being "pro" life, not only opposing abortion, but also capital punishment, corporate misbehavior, and military overreach.

Just as Oregon will miss Sen. Hatfield, it is to our country's detriment that there are not more politicians like him, whether they affiliate themselves with the Republican or Democratic Party. I am not sure Sen. Hatfield would be revered by most leaders of the current Republican Party, although unfortunately, most modern Democratic Party leaders would eschew him also. But rejecting statesmen like Sen. Hatfield will only be to our detriment. The real problems of our debt, unemployment, runaway healthcare costs, and many more will only be solved by people and leaders who place political pragmatism over ideology and those who consider all facts instead of their selective interpretation to score political points. Whether Republican or Democratic, we need more people like Sen. Hatfield back in our political system and dialogue, and this is all the more reason why we should truly mourn his passing.

Although I did not know him well, Sen. Hatfield touched my life and enabled my success. For that reason, I will laud him as well as miss him and people like him.

1 comment:

  1. I did not know him, but followed his career; from Governor of Oregon to US Senator, while I was a resident of ND. There were a number of his views that I disagreed with, yet, his steadfast commitment to OHSU and healthcare in general, is appreciated by me.

    His work brought several phenomenal individuals to OHSU. You are one that I had the fortune to meet.

    He is going to be missed terribly. This was a great blog tribute.