Paul Greenberg

It's hard to believe I've never got around to paying my last respects in this column to the late great Henry Hyde on his passing earlier this year - a congressman whose ballast and bulk, stentorian voice and rhetorical flourishes, and general pomp and circumstance made him almost a caricature of the kind of politico who once dominated Congress.

Henry Hyde's fustian manner is very much out of style now - as it was even during his heyday. In some ways he might have stepped out of an "Illustrated History of Late 19th Century American Political Leaders." One almost expects to find his portrait alongside those of forgotten but once powerful figures like James G. Blaine and Roscoe Conkling.

By the time of his death at 83, Henry Hyde had long been something of a curio. He was a man out of his time in many ways, which may have been just what made him great. He was a living antique. For on the critical issues of his day and ours, The Honorable Henry Hyde proved honorable indeed, unwavering in his devotion to principles that have grown decidedly unfashionable. He stood very much apart from his more sophisticated, flexible, blow-dried contemporaries - the smooth Mitt Romneys of an earlier time. Trimmers and triangulators all, they knew how to shift with the wind. Why pick a side before it was clear which would be the popular one? They were Clintonesque even before Bill Clinton.

Not that Henry Hyde didn't have his faults (who doesn't?) but, when a crisis arose, he took his stand on principle, even if he might have to take it with precious little company. As when he took evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice seriously, and wound up manager of a presidential impeachment that was bound to fail in these cynical times. ("They all do it, don't they?") It didn't seem to matter to Henry Hyde whether his side would prevail, only that he do his duty by his own, old-fashioned - some would say outmoded - lights.

What touched Henry Hyde's years in Congress with greatness was the monotonous regularity, no matter how quixotic it seemed at first, with which he introduced what came to be called the Hyde Amendment, which forbade the use of federal funds for abortions. When he first introduced it in 1976, shortly after Roe v. Wade was decided, he himself was surprised when it actually passed, for in those years many assumed that the question had been permanently, definitively, unquestionably settled by the Supreme Court. A gadfly like Henry Hyde was not welcome. To borrow a line from Ring Lardner: Shut up, they explained.

He wouldn't. Session after congressional session through the '70s and '80s and '90s, Henry Hyde came back with his pro-life amendment. The man would not give up, just as later he would take the lead against the semi-infanticide known as partial-birth abortion. How many lives his unswerving stand may have saved over the years must remain a matter of speculation - a million, two million? - but you got the idea he would have done the same if it had been only one.

In the few years before the Hyde Amendment took effect, there had been 300,000 federally funded abortions annually. The Clinton Administration once complained that the amendment had prevented 325,000 to 675,000 such abortions every year. An ancient sage once said that he who saves a single life saves a whole world. In that case, Henry Hyde saved worlds.

Some politicians are remembered not for their high office or electoral successes but because of the improbable cause they embraced. One thinks of John Quincy Adams, who, long after he had been secretary of state and president of the United States, and had garnered many another honor, returned to Congress to present anti-slavery petitions - year after year, congressional session after session, only to see them routinely rejected. What a bore and bother he must have seemed. Yet those were his greatest years because they saw his greatest service to his country and to the cause of freedom - not because he won his fight but because he fought.

So it was with Henry Hyde, who was willing to go against the rushing current of his time no matter how long it took to reverse it. That is why, before this year ends, I hasten to express my gratitude for a life lived in service to life.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.