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Henningsen: Salt Lake Showdown

06/19/12 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen is watching one political race that seems right out of the movies.

(Henningsen) It's an iconic American moment. Wind whipping through a dusty town, the sun high, townsfolk scurrying for cover. Two men face each other on an empty street. One is old, grizzled, tired with experience, but stubborn, unwilling to back down from a challenge. The other is young, confident, eager to test his mettle against the best there is.

"Think you're still fast enough, old man?"

"Son, you don't want to do this."

"It's my turn, my time! Now draw!"

Yes, the Law of the West, where men settle their differences the old-fashioned way and where every gunfighter, no matter how successful, learns that, sooner or later, someone'll come along who is better, who'll be just that much faster, just a little quicker. And the kid who knocks him off? Eventually he too becomes the aging pro, unable to dodge confrontation but haunted by knowing that he too will fall to a faster man.

Thirty-six years ago a young Utah man came out of nowhere, knocked off the big guns in a series of spectacular duels, and became the best in the West. Since 1976 no one has dared oppose him.

Until now.

His name is Orrin Hatch. On June 26th the six term senator faces a showdown in the Utah Republican primary against a former state senator named Dan Liljenquist, who's successfully taken Hatch's tactics and turned them against the 78-year old pro.

In '76, sporting the plaid leisure suits and long sideburns that made the decade so memorable, Hatch shot up the Utah political scene, taking his party nomination away from the approved nominee and going on to beat a three-term Democratic incumbent. Riding the flood tide of American disenchantment with the post-Watergate era, Hatch was at the crest of the conservative wave that would bring to power the likes of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and the Bush family. For thirty-six years, he's been a conservative mainstay and a major power in the Republican party.

Until now.

Hatch's opponent is re-playing the 1976 campaign, with himself in the Orrin Hatch role. Like many Tea Party-backed Republicans, Liljenquist's running far to Hatch's right, as Hatch ran to the right of those he bested all those years ago. We know this works. Former Utah Republican senator Bob Bennett lost to a Tea Party candidate in the primary two years ago; in Indiana, long time Senator Dick Lugar lost to a younger conservative just this spring. Hatch is pulling out all the stops, but it may be close.

If Hatch is gunned down, it'll be like watching Joel McCrea sink out of the frame at the end of Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country. It happens in silence because there's nothing to be said. You can't be on top forever.

But if Hatch wins, he has the chance to repeat one of the great lines of American cinema: "Just remember kid, I taught you everything you know. But I didn't teach you everything I know."
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