CHICAGO — He authored the staunchest pro-life legislation in Congress in 30 years, and headed the impeachment hearings against President Clinton. Either of those efforts would naturally incite a whole camp of enemies.
But by all accounts, Congressman Henry Hyde passed away without one, although he had an army of admirers on both sides of the floor.
“Henry Hyde spoke of controversial matters with intellectual honesty and without rancor,” said President Bush in a recent ceremony awarding the longtime U.S. Representative from Illinois with the Medal of Freedom. “He proved that a man can have firm convictions and be a favorite of Democrats and Republicans alike.”
Hyde had been both in his career. Growing up in Chicago as an Irish Catholic Democrat, he switched parties in 1952 and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1966.
When Hyde became majority leader in 1971, intern Wayne Andersen asked to be his assistant.
“In the Illinois General Assembly, every imaginable politician came by asking for Henry’s help, whether they agreed with him on issues or not,” recalled Andersen, now a federal judge in Chicago. “He was gifted as a legislator. There was a time when the Illinois House was divided evenly and needed 89 votes to pass a bill, and nothing was getting done because of partisan wrangling. People were angry and debilitated.
“Henry stood up and said he had voted against something just because he was on the other side of the aisle, and asked the House to reconsider the last bill on its merits. They wound up going back to the last 32 bills that had failed, and he brought people back into an atmosphere of wanting to work together.”
In spite of the post-Watergate backlash against Republicans, Hyde was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, where he served with a highly distinguished record until his retirement in 2006. That service was tested early on, once Hyde embraced the pro-life cause. He recounted the time in his little-known book For Every Idle Silence.
“I did not come into politics with a great interest in the rather heavy subject of values in public policy,” he wrote in 1985. “Fittingly enough for a politician, I developed the misgivings I now have in the course of the cut and thrust and compromise of a politician’s often unreflective active life. Appropriately enough, the crisis of abortion introduced me to the crisis of church and state.”
Addressing those crises absorbed Hyde’s career and turned him into one of the greatest champions of humanitarian rights and relief.
“I quickly decided that abortion was something to be resisted strenuously,” Hyde wrote. “I was thus swept into the abortion debate by the circumstances of practical politics. There was, and to a large degree still is, a leadership vacuum on this issue. … Abortion was and is a technical, emotional and controversial issue. It is what politicians call a ‘no win’ issue — something that will make you enemies no matter what you do.”
He plunged into pro-life advocacy by authoring the 1976 legislation that banned public funding of abortions through Medicaid, known as the Hyde Amendment.
“The early fights for that amendment were radical,” recalled Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who watched the political action as a young man. “Hyde was the star, a trailblazer. It’s tougher to blaze the trail than to follow on. Henry taught me the lesson that some things are worth losing elections for, and life is one of them.”
Though he didn’t lose, he was fought fiercely by the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and others.
“Look, he had to persuade people to sign on to the Hyde Amendment who felt differently than he did on the definition of life and personhood, from the very beginning stages,” said Andersen. “He succeeded because he was extremely effective in his power of persuasion.”
The [online version of ] National Review estimated that in the year before the amendment passed, “the federal government had financed 300,000 abortions for low-income women. Afterward, this number dropped essentially to zero,” Andersen said. “The National Right to Life Committee has estimated, conservatively, that the Hyde Amendment has prevented at least one million abortions. That’s one million Americans who are alive today because of Henry Hyde. … It is without question the most important piece of pro-life legislation ever to pass Congress.”
It was a turning point in politics, and pro-life advocacy.
“Congressman Hyde played a big role in crystallizing the issue of abortion as central to politics and the culture,” said Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life. “He has always been a driving force in making it clear that abortion is not one among many issues.”
As Father Pavone travels the country, he said, pro-life activists talk about Hyde.
“There’s a spirit of Henry Hyde at the grassroots level. Though he served in the highest halls of Washington, he has been an ongoing source of strength for those fighting in the trenches.”
Veteran pro-life attorney Tom Brejcha used some of those same words to describe Hyde’s impact on him personally, his famous client Joe Scheidler and the Pro-Life Action League.
“We were at a low point in the trial of NOW v. Scheidler, the judge was inhospitable to our advocacy, and Congressman Hyde came back to Chicago from Washington to be a character witness for Joe,” remembered Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society. “In his testimony, Henry praised Scheidler’s courage, and said that if pro-lifers had done similar work ‘at the entrance to Dachau and Auschwitz, there may have been fewer people incinerated there.’ He was absolutely unflappable.
At the time, Hyde was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and later presided over the Clinton impeachment hearings. Before Congress and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Hyde delivered an impassioned speech about the gravity of the oath of office, the issue before them. He invoked the name of St. Thomas More who, as lord chancellor of England, was imprisoned for not taking an oath that betrayed his faith.
“When a man takes an oath,” Hyde repeated from More’s famous words to his daughter, “he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called Hyde “brilliant and noble and eloquent,” a great orator and statesman. “His legendary floor speeches changed the votes of hardened career politicians,” DeLay wrote in a tribute.
House Republican leader John Boehner had similar praise.
“Indeed, when Henry spoke in committee or on the House floor, members on both sides of the aisle listened intently — and they learned,” wrote Boehner.
Brownback recalled those speeches well.
“I remember, as a new member of Congress, that when Henry was going to speak, you set aside whatever else you were doing to listen to him,” Brownback said.
He used his voice for those who didn’t have a voice, says Chicago Cardinal Francis George in a statement.
“Henry Hyde … was a powerful champion for those who had no voice in the public square. His concern reached from those not yet born to immigrants. … He stated once in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, ‘God put us in the world to do noble things, to love and to cherish our fellow human beings.’”
Followed into Mass
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., was a lifelong friend. In a written statement, he said, “Henry was a man of deep and abiding faith, generous to a fault, with an incisive mind that worked seamlessly with his incredible sense of humor.”
In the thick of the fight over the Hyde Amendment in 1977, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood raised serious constitutional questions about Hyde’s Catholic faith, Hyde recounted in For Every Idle Silence. They developed a theory, he explained, that he used the amendment to impose “a peculiarly religious view of when a human life begins.”
They began investigating his “expressions of religious sentiment,” and sent a private investigator to follow Hyde into Mass in Arlington, Va. “He took notes. He watched me get up to read the epistle at Mass, take Communion, and appear to pray. … The private eye went so far as to write down a famous quotation written on a statue of St. Thomas More, one of my heroes and patron of the cathedral: ‘I die the king’s good servant but God’s first.’”
Just about every tribute to the congressman remarked that the Hyde Amendment will be his lasting legacy.
“The principles he fought for will endure beyond his life on earth,” stated Andersen. “He really made a difference. There is no other American politician who has so successfully committed himself to Catholic values. He always separated issues from people, and treated all people with respect.”
But Newt Minow, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said his accomplishments were not limited to the amendment that bears his name. Minow, who also chaired the Carnegie Corporation and the Public Broadcasting Service, knew Hyde well and noted that he was a “champion … in our international broadcasting.”
“He thought we should be doing more with the Voice of America [VOA] internationally, using it to pursue public diplomacy,” Minow said. “He thought we could win hearts and minds that way, and should be doing more to communicate America’s values abroad. As chairman of the International Relations Committee, he tried to convince different administrations to do more with the USIA (U.S. Information Agency, now folded into the State Department), to go from radio to TV on the VOA. But it never went anywhere. It wasn’t a popular issue. He always regretted that.”
Longtime aide Patrick Durante recalled his amazement at Hyde’s constant accessibility to all people who came to him.
“He was approachable to everyone,” said Durante, who ran Hyde’s district office in Addison, Ill., for more than 30 years. “Henry always wanted to keep close contact with the people. No one was too small. He was there for everybody, lowest of the low, highest of the high, Democrat or Republican.”
President Bush honored Hyde for that quality in the Medal of Freedom ceremony.
“This erudite, scholarly man has walked with kings and kept the common touch,” Bush stated. “They’re quick to say it’s not the same Congress without him — but that we’re a better country because he was there. And colleagues will always admire and look up to the gentleman from Illinois, Henry J. Hyde.”
writes from Chicago.