A nice guy in a nasty fight
A man of courtliness and character, Henry Hyde must above all show that the Republicans are fair
By John F. Dickerson Washington
Portrait unveilings tend to be dramatic, brass-band ceremonies held to mark the end of great political careers. So it was a bit odd that a 5-ft.-tall oil painting of Henry Hyde was unveiled two weeks ago in a ceremony off limits to the press--and just as Hyde was facing the defining test of his 40 years in politics. More than 200 people--friends, family and constituents--applauded the presentation of the image: the hulking House Judiciary Committee chairman standing between his "Turkish" leather chair and a bust of Lincoln. The likeness hangs in the committee hearing room next to a portrait of Watergate legend Peter Rodino, the New Jersey Democrat who quieted doubters with his steady leadership during the Nixon impeachment proceedings. Now Hyde must pull off much the same feat. When he rose to speak, he seemed aware of the challenge he faces. "I came here thinking I could change the world," said the white-haired Illinois Republican. "Now my only ambition is to leave the room with dignity."
Work is under way on the only Hyde portrait that really matters. When the Judiciary Committee meets this week to launch the third inquiry into the impeachment of a President in the nation's history, partisan members will bicker and spit--but Hyde's performance will go a long way toward either reassuring people that the process is orderly and rational or convincing them that it is a witch hunt. "If I were to fail," he told TIME last week, "it would negate everything I have done before." And even those who know him best wonder which Henry Hyde it is that Americans will meet in the coming days: the man who Commerce Secretary William Daley, a Democrat, says exhibits "exemplary character and the highest personal integrity"? Or the Cook County Republican precinct captain carrying out the orders of the man behind the scenes, Newt Gingrich?
Already the 74-year-old widower has aced one test that no one expected him to face: the online magazine Salon reported three weeks ago that Hyde had an extramarital affair 30 years ago. That revelation "hurt him tremendously," says Congressman David Dreier of California, Hyde's friend and sometime movie companion. What Hyde felt was not so much personal embarrassment, say friends, as insult to his four children and his wife of 45 years, whom he still mourns since her death six years ago. Yet Hyde admitted the affair with a speed and self-effacement that set the standard for such things. The performance cemented the notion that Hyde is the best--maybe only--asset the Republicans have at the moment: a man who looks, and is, sound and fair, even as he oversees a panel whose members are not all known for those qualities.
The most important thing to realize about Hyde is that he is one of the last of a generation of Congress members who relied on manners to get things done. These days the typical Republican lawmaker is young, brash and in a hurry. Hyde is none of those things. In a House where new members seem to get pancake makeup issued to them at freshman orientation, Hyde sometimes has to be pushed to go on camera. He whispers when he wants to emphasize a point. He speaks in annotations rather than sound bites. His eyes twinkle not when he counts votes but when he quotes Edmund Burke or winds through the story of George Washington quelling a mutiny at Newburgh, N.Y. He was so taken with the portrayal of John Quincy Adams in the movie Amistad that he sent away for the script; he memorized passages about "the very nature of man" and uses them in speeches denouncing partial-birth abortion. "Henry is haunted by the ghosts of this place," says Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee. "He feels as if all those who have come before him are looking at him and saying, 'Don't let us down.'"
Hyde's Old World courtliness has allowed him to pull off the remarkable trick of holding some of the most ideologically rigid views in Congress while maintaining a reputation for restraint. He crafted the famous Hyde amendment--six lines he hastily scribbled on legal paper in 1976 that deny low-income women federal funds for abortions. He was a robust supporter of Oliver North during the Iran-contra affair, and he led the calls for an independent counsel to look into Bill Clinton's 1996 fund-raising practices. But opponents speak of him with respect. Says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League: "He has been a fierce opponent of a woman's right to choose, but he is also a man of sincere convictions. I think his reputation as a statesman is a fair one and one that he's earned. He is honorable."
He has sometimes been flexible as well. In 1981 California Congressman Don Edwards went with Hyde on a tour of polling places in Texas and Alabama that eased Hyde's knee-jerk opposition to preserving the Voting Rights Act. After listening to men and women describe having had to walk 50 miles to vote only to have the doors shut on them by local sheriffs, Hyde changed his position. "We were coming back home on the plane," remembers Edwards. "And he said, 'We've got to change this.' He started out very conservative and then had a total awakening." Hyde has also famously bucked Republican orthodoxy on term limits, the Family Leave Act and gun control. His support for the ban on assault weapons in 1994 is credited with saving the measure. "The assault weapons have no other purpose than to kill a lot of people in a hurry," said Hyde, whose stance even tipped the opinion of his party leader, Bob Michel.
Republicans are counting on Hyde's good sense to bolster their credibility in news cycle after news cycle. Until now, neither Hyde nor the Young Turks have had much use for each other. "He does feel as if he has been saddled with a bunch of yahoos," says an old friend. "It's hard to be a serious gentleman and have this crowd around you." But while Hyde is wary of revolutionaries who want to tear down the institutions he reveres, he recognizes that "they turned the lights on." He would still be in the minority and without a chairmanship were it not for the zealous Gingrich. "I served in this House many long years in the minority," he says. "And we were told that we were in the minority, and we were treated as a minority." As a sign of gratitude to Gingrich, Hyde zipped the Contract with America through his committee--even the portions he didn't like.
Now the same rebels are nudging Hyde out front, to put a kinder face on the brutal process about to get under way. "You're going to be seeing a lot more of Henry Hyde," says a Gingrich aide. Hyde cringes when Gingrich storms the stage. The Speaker, says Hyde wryly, "is not averse to expressing his strong views, which he does intermittently, in between spells of 'Leave it all to Henry.'" And Hyde is not shy about standing up to Gingrich. When he aired plans last spring to put Hyde in charge of a select committee to handle impeachment questions, Hyde resisted, threatening not to serve on the hybrid creation and demanding that Judiciary be allowed to play its historic role. Gingrich had little choice but to accommodate him.
Hyde's stubbornness and common sense spring partly from his hometown. His suburban Chicago district is just a few miles from the Howard Street apartment where he grew up. One flight up from a saloon, the flat was all the family could afford during the Depression, as his father barely held on to his job collecting nickels from pay phones. His parents were Democrats by default. "If you lived in Chicago in the '30s, you were a Democrat," says longtime friend Philip Corboy. The stronger influence in Hyde's life was Catholicism. Coaxed by his mother, he attended St. George, a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers, who, Hyde says, "did not eschew corporal punishment when called for, which was often." As a 6-ft. 1-in. eighth-grader, Hyde was a presence in the hallways for more reasons than just his talent for magic tricks. "He was always a raconteur," remembers Corboy. "He talked like an adult when he was a kid."
Hyde's build made him a natural for center on the school basketball team and landed him an athletic scholarship to Jesuit- run Georgetown University, 22 years before Bill Clinton arrived there from Arkansas. Friends learned then not to think Hyde's usual civility meant he lacked a fighting spirit. Corboy recalls Hyde getting mad at him during a game of two-on-two basketball. Says Corboy: "He threw the ball either at me or against the wall in an expression of complete rage. I said, 'It's only a basketball game.' And he replied, 'What else is there?'"
--With reporting by Wendy Cole/ Chicago and Elaine Shannon/Washington
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Cover Date: October 12, 1998
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Bowles bids adieu
Eulogy: Tom Bradley
A nice guy in a nasty fight
On the fast track to impeach
Rwandan tragedy, Lewinsky farce
The unreachable Starr