Before the Year Ends...

Posted: Dec 31, 2007 12:01 AM
Before the Year Ends...

Years ago I used to make a point of visiting a little shop that specialized in repairing small electrical appliances. It was located on Main Street in a small Southern town, and was run - well, tended - by two elderly sisters who could have stepped out of a short story by Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor. It was that kind of town: a Southern Gothic place full of types and anecdotes you seldom find any more, even in these storied latitudes.

The repair shop was crammed from floor to ceiling with assorted radios, clocks, electric irons and other gadgets in various states of disrepair. The place could have served as a museum of mid-20th century household appliances, some of which were so old their purpose wasn't easy to recall.

Needing an excuse to visit the shop, I might bring in some antiquated appliance to be fixed, not sure whether I would ever see it again - for things had a way of disappearing among all the shop's mechanical, electrical or just hand-powered detritus. It was as if they melted into another dimension, namely the past. But that scarcely mattered. If the ladies couldn't locate your radio or clock or record player (younger readers will need that last item defined), they'd give you somebody else's. You usually came out with something better than whatever you'd brought in, which only added to the satisfactions of the visit.

The little shop wasn't exactly a model of efficiency, but whatever it lacked in speed or organization, it more than made up for in charm. In those cramped precincts, time slowed to a leisurely pace, and the South I'd known as a child still lived and loitered.

My favorite moment in the shop - there were many to choose from - came one day in what must have been some time in 1980s, known as the Roaring Eighties elsewhere in the country. I'd dropped by to pick up some useless artifact I'd left there months before. While waiting for it not to be found, I picked up an old electric iron on one of the crowded tables, blew off the dust, and looked at the long since faded tag that someone had conscientiously affixed to the cracked handle. All it said was: RUSH!

All of which is by way of long introduction to my own version of that old shop, which consists of a carton of newspaper clippings over in the corner of the office full of yellowing items I've been meaning to comment on for some time but never got around to. Every one of them could have been marked RUSH!

As another year hurtles to its close, conscience compelled me to pick out one clipping in particular, an obituary, for something more than an editorial lick-and-a-promise.

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.