Denver — Orrin Hatch has been in the Senate since 1977, but he has only attended a handful of presidential debates. “The first one was probably Reagan in 1980,” he tells me as we chat outside of the University of Denver’s debate hall. “Reagan was very dear to me.”
Hatch says he went to the Reagan–Carter debates as a surrogate, but not in the role campaign surrogates perform today. As a young senator, he was there to advise Reagan aides on labor policy and mingle with Reagan’s inner circle. The expansive spin room that dominates today’s heavily covered debate was nonexistent.
But politics hasn’t really changed much, Hatch says, beyond the circus-like atmosphere in the media center. During high-stakes events such as debates, relations between rival politicians can get prickly, Hatch says, smiling.
Hatch remembers running into John Connally, the former Texas governor, in a hallway in 1980, right before a primary cattle call. Nancy Reagan was at his side and Connally, who ran against Reagan in the primary, didn’t say hello to her.
“She was in this beautiful white gown and she got so mad at him,” Hatch says. “I was a little bit mad, too, but I think he probably just didn’t see her. But how could you miss her in that beautiful white dress? She was absolutely stunning.”
“Politics is full of chuckles,” Hatch says. “If you look at Congress and the campaigns, you’ll find enough humor to get you through the rest of your life.”
Hatch has been close with many Republican nominees, but Mitt Romney is the closest friend he’s had among them since he got to know Reagan more than three decades ago. Hatch doesn’t call Romney and give him advice every day, but they exchange weekly e-mails. “I keep them very short, very sweet, and very much to the point,” he says. “I don’t think he needs a lot of help from me.”