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The Man Who Would Be Judge

By James Carney/Washington

TIME magazine

(TIME, February 23) -- When Henry J. Hyde went to Washington in 1975 to represent the western suburbs of Chicago in Congress, he was advised to steer clear of the House Judiciary Committee if he wanted an interesting assignment. The year before, the whole nation had watched the committee conduct the sensational impeachment hearings that led President Nixon to resign. "I was told that the golden days of the committee were over, that it would sink into desuetude," Hyde remembers. "But I was a lawyer, so I was drawn to it."

Twenty-three years later, his instinct has put Hyde at the center of one of Washington's biggest political dramas since Watergate. Once Kenneth Starr finishes gathering evidence against Bill Clinton, he is almost certain to turn over the case to Congress. Then it will be up to chairman Hyde to wield the gavel as the House Judiciary Committee contemplates impeachment again. "To participate in that would be very exciting," says Hyde, 73. "But I don't relish seeking to undo the outcome of two presidential elections."

That Hyde would be the Republican sitting in judgment of Bill Clinton is good news for impeachment-minded Republicans seeking a nonpartisan veneer. Though revered by conservatives (and considered as a replacement for Speaker Newt Gingrich during his ethics troubles), Hyde enjoys the respect of even the most liberal Democrats. "Henry is a man of dignity; he knows the rules, and he follows the rules," proclaims Barney Frank, the committee Democrat whose sister, Ann Lewis, is White House communications director. Former congressional titan and fellow Chicagoan Dan Rostenkowski remembers flying to and from Washington with Hyde as he clipped newspaper articles and underlined history books. "Henry's a student, a real thinker," he says. "I'm very comfortable with him in charge."

Perhaps that's because Hyde, like Rostenkowski, grew up working class and Catholic in Chicago--an almost exclusively Democratic environment. When Hyde was a boy, his father's job was collecting coins from pay telephones. After winning a basketball scholarship to Georgetown, the 6-ft.-3-in. Hyde served two years in the Navy during World War II. During lulls overseas, he studied Marx and Lenin and began to worry that America's strategic alliance with Stalin had made the Democratic Party too soft on communism. He volunteered as a Democrat for Ike in 1956, then switched parties. It wasn't until 1968, when a colleague in the state legislature asked him to co-sponsor a bill to make abortions easier to obtain in Illinois, that Hyde confronted the issue that would later define his career. By the time he got to Congress, Hyde was ardently, and articulately, pro-life. He pushed through the first bill restricting federal funding for abortion.

But this widower and father of four is not doctrinaire about his conservatism. After a fact-finding trip to the Deep South in 1985, he led a mini-G.O.P. revolt against the Reagan Administration to push through re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act. He infuriated Republican colleagues by siding with Clinton in support of gun control and the Family Leave Act, and then by leading the successful fight against a central tenet of Gingrich's Contract with America: term limits. Calling them "the dumbest idea since synthetic leatherette," Hyde once warned that forcing out veteran lawmakers to make room for neophyte "citizen legislators" would prove costly to the Republic. "You are going to deny to this country in times of real crisis the cool, wise, experienced heads that are necessary in those times." Hyde could have been talking about himself.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 23, 1998

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Turning Up The Heat
Washington Diary: Should A Mom Rat On Her Daughter?
Could Clinton Still Settle With Jones?
The Man Who Would Be Judge
Notebook: Beltway Bungles

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