David Axelrod: Orrin Hatch's simple act of kindness

In March 2010, during my second year as senior adviser to President Barack Obama, I was the subject of a snarky newsp...

Posted: Jan 3, 2018 10:40 AM
Updated: Jan 3, 2018 10:40 AM

In March 2010, during my second year as senior adviser to President Barack Obama, I was the subject of a snarky newspaper profile, portraying me as tired and defeated in the midst of the final push for health care reform.

I was not the first or last presidential aide to find himself in such crosshairs and, as a highly visible member of the administration, I knew such stories were to be expected.

Still, I was working night and day to advance the President's agenda, so it was particularly irritating to see quotes from well-meaning friends and even family members lending credence to the story by sharing their concerns about my stamina.

I was traveling the day the piece hit when an unexpected call lit up my cellphone just as I was settling into my seat for a flight back to Washington. It was from Sen. Orrin Hatch. "I saw that story in the paper this morning," he said, "and I just wanted to call and say, don't let the bastards get you down."

I had known Hatch a little through my wife, Susan, and her work as founder of CURE, an organization she helped create to fight for more medical research into epilepsy. Hatch was in the audience when Susan spoke at an event in Salt Lake City about the toll epilepsy had exacted on our daughter, Lauren. Moved by the story, the senator invited Susan to visit with him in Washington and became a great supporter of epilepsy research.

Though solidly conservative, Hatch had famously found common cause with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on children's health care and other issues. I was in the audience when he had spoken movingly about those collaborations at Kennedy's memorial service in 2009.

By the time of Hatch's call to me, however, partisanship had boiled over, which made his simple act of kindness all the more meaningful.

After four decades in Washington, Hatch was accustomed to the cruel rituals of Washington. He had seen a parade of presidential advisers held up to intense and sometimes very personal criticism when administrations appeared to be stumbling, as all administrations do. As he cheerfully imparted with his call, this is one of the rites of passage of public service. They come and go.

Hatch, 83, who Tuesday announced plans to retire at the end of his current term, has himself been the target of some harsh criticism, most recently over his fulsome praise for President Donald Trump at the White House ceremony before Christmas marking the passage of the tax bill. (Wherever you stand on the 45th president or the tax bill, it seemed more than a little hyperbolic to suggest, as Hatch appeared to, that Trump is on track to eclipse Washington or Lincoln as our greatest president.)

That bit of fawning came amid Trump's own aggressive wooing of Hatch to run for re-election this year, an effort that seemed to ramp up instantly with news that Mitt Romney is waiting in the wings to succeed Hatch as senator from Utah.

Having chased out a number of Republican apostates, such as Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, Trump surely is less than eager to welcome one of his harshest critics to the Republican caucus in the Senate.

With Tuesday's announcement, Hatch yielded to the realities of age, poor poll numbers and, just maybe, a desire to leave on his own terms and not as a convenient tool of this President.

It also means the Senate will lose yet another of the dwindling corps of members who recall a time when bipartisanship was possible and simple acts of civility were not considered a sign of weakness or treachery.

Thanks for the call, Senator - and for your service to the country.

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