We haven't lacked recently for congressmen who have disgraced Congress. Now, we've lost one who ennobled it.
Henry Hyde has died at age 83. He represented a suburban Chicago district in the House for 32 years before retiring last year in failing health. When political commentators lament the passing of a Golden Age in Congress, they usually are inventing an imagined past. But Henry Hyde really did embody a set of political qualities that have become rare in an age of hyperpartisanship and YouTube debates.
He had principles, but was never a fanatic. He was partisan, but never a bomb-thrower. He defended traditional values, but never was preachy. He was respected by both sides because he knew that respect must be given to be received. He was eloquent in a way few American politicians are, and deeply literate. But he enjoyed his cigars and -- once a stand-up comic -- leavened all he did with a keen sense of humor.
One of his most extraordinary qualities was that he was persuasive and persuadable. In the mid-1980s, he doubted the need to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. After traveling to the South for field hearings, he changed his mind and worked to convince Reagan administration officials to support the reauthorization.
Hyde came to his famous pro-life views in a characteristic way -- he considered the evidence. When he was serving in the Illinois legislature in the 1970s, a colleague asked him to co-sponsor a bill liberalizing abortion law. He hadn't thought about the issue, and read a book called "The Vanishing Right to Live" by Charlie Rice that convinced him of abortion's evil. He opposed the Illinois bill and, when elected to Congress, shepherded to passage legislation forbidding the federal funding of abortion. The Hyde Amendment has stood for decades as the most consequential piece of pro-life legislation ever to pass Congress.
The pro-life cause became one of the pillars of Hyde's public life. He once told incoming congressmen, in the political axiom he lived by, that they "need to be at least as clear on the reasons why they would risk losing as they are on the reasons why they wanted to come here in the first place." His staffers recall left-wing lioness Maxine Waters later repeating exactly the same advice to freshmen congressmen -- and attributing it to Hyde.
Hyde grew up a New Deal Democrat in an Irish-Catholic family in Chicago. He thought Republicans were "a bunch of bankers, bloated bondholders and economic royalists." The cause of anti-communism prompted him to rethink his attitude toward the GOP. He became a committed Cold Warrior, and during a career studded with legislative achievements, it was his work on national security of which he was most proud.
He will be remembered for leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, a cause he undertook more out of duty than of zeal (during the controversy, it was revealed that he had had an affair 30 years previously). He thought he had no choice but to champion impeachment given President Clinton's offenses against the rule of law: "It protects the innocent, it punishes the guilty, it defends the powerless, it guards freedom, it summons the noblest instincts of the human spirit."
Right, center or left, we need more representatives who love Congress the way Hyde did -- as a magnificent expression of our experiment in self-government -- and do all that they can to make it an institution worth loving. "When I cross the river for the last time," he told friends not long ago, echoing Gen. MacArthur, "my thoughts will be of the House, the House, the House."
In a speech in the midst of the impeachment fight, he had proclaimed, "We vote for our honor, which is the only thing we get to take with us to the grave." Henry Hyde departs with his honor intact, honed during decades of public service and acknowledged by all. RIP
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