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War Stories

Hyde spent two decades fighting partisan wars and losing, frequently as a member of the minority in the House, before young conservatives swept the Republicans to power in 1994. Things have been easier since, he says, but he has found that he still can't win all the time.

Most of Gingrich's "Contract With America" moved through Hyde's committee, including some measures, like term limits, that he loathed. He also bucked the leadership by opposing repeal of the assault weapons ban. "I don't want the kid next door having a flame thrower or a Gatling gun," he said. "These assault weapons have no other purpose than to kill a lot of people in a hurry."

But he is not always his own master, and in the hot crucible of the Gingrich Revolution, the newcomers have often rolled him. His efforts to move an anti-terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing were frustrated for almost a year by Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) and other conservatives worried about increasing federal police powers. When Barr beat him on the floor, Hyde "laughed and said, 'You whupped us,'" Barr recalls. "I never sensed any animosity."

And asked once to explain why the leadership changed one of his bills after Judiciary approved it, Hyde remarked: "I'm in the chorus – I'm standing in back of Ray Charles going 'Wooo, wooo!'"

Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a senior Judiciary Committee member, suggests that Hyde "at times has been willing to not get up and say something" – but "that doesn't mean he doesn't think it."

Despite his reputation for fair-mindedness and consistency, Hyde can still be a fierce partisan. Democrats remember with bitterness the news conference a month before the 1996 presidential election when Hyde asked the Justice Department to investigate possible lies by Clinton administration officials about U.S. complicity in Iranian arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a senior Judiciary Committee member and Hyde's counterpart in the investigation, branded Hyde's demand as an "outrageous political tactic" designed to smear Clinton. The Justice Department did not turn up any wrongdoing.

Finally, like many politicians, Hyde has had his troubles at home. In 1993 he and other board members of an Illinois savings and loan whose failure cost taxpayers $68 million were sued for negligence by the federal government. Hyde claimed he had done nothing wrong and demanded a trial, but the other defendants wanted to settle and did. Hyde did not have to pay any money.

For all these reasons, Hyde is neither universally loved nor trusted. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the Judiciary Committee's top Democrat and its only member to have participated in President Nixon's impeachment hearings, regards his relations with Hyde today as "barely okay," and won't say more.

A Long Right Turn

Hyde came by his conservatism the hard way. He was a convert, raised in a Democratic family in the Great Depression. His father worked for the city of Chicago emptying pay-phone coin boxes.

The Hydes lived in suburban Evanston, but they couldn't afford to keep their house and had to move into an apartment over a saloon in the city. Hyde remembers his father "hanging onto his job by his fingernails," while the kids ate chop suey because it was cheap. "Even today," he says, "I have trouble eating chop suey."

Hyde went to high school at St. George in Evanston after writing a successful scholarship essay. The topic was "What is your favorite book?" Hyde chose the Bible, remembers Corboy, a classmate, "which in a serious Catholic school is always the right answer."

Hyde got a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University but dropped out after his freshman year to enlist in the Navy. Commissioned an ensign in 1944, he served on amphibious ships during landings in the South Pacific, New Guinea and Lingayen Gulf.

It was during downtime in the armed forces that he began to read Marx and Lenin, courtesy of one of his captains, a Marxist who had installed a private library aboard his troop transport.

But instead of becoming a disciple, he says, "I became concerned that communism was a serious threat. I became worried that my government had a blind spot as to the Soviet Union's intentions. I was worried that Mr. Roosevelt was too cozy with this guy Stalin."

Years later, this same contrarian streak first got Hyde involved in the abortion debate. Despite his devout Catholicism, Hyde said he never thought about abortion until a colleague in the Illinois House asked him to co-sponsor an abortion rights law in 1968. Hyde read up on the subject, and, as with Marxism, familiarity bred contempt.

"The bill was nothing to be supported," he decided, and said so during the debate. The measure lost, Hyde says, and "it was like mounting the tiger. I have never been able to get off."

Not that he has wanted to. He had been in Congress only two years when then-Rep. Bob Bauman (R-Md.), an anti-abortion advocate, approached him in the shadowy recesses of the House chamber one day in 1976 and told him that the spending bill under debate "has $50 million for 300,000 abortions." Bauman suggested to Hyde that he take the lead in trying to get the money out, saying: "They know me, but they don't know you."

Hyde and Bauman worked furiously to draft an amendment, and it passed. It was the first of the so-called "Hyde amendments" curtailing federal funding for abortions.

The Convert

After the war, Hyde completed his bachelor's degree at Georgetown and went to Loyola University law school in Chicago. In 1947, he married his Georgetown sweetheart, Jeanne Simpson. She died after a long battle with cancer in 1992, "a wrenching experience" from which Hyde says he never fully recovered. He has four children and five grandchildren.

Hyde voted for Harry Truman in 1948, but as a young trial lawyer in Chicago he was drifting further away from Chicago's Democratic fold, and he wasn't quiet about it. Finally, Winnifred Henry, a client and a Cook County official, turned to him one day in 1958 and said, "Why don't you become a Republican?"

So he did. "They welcomed me with open arms," he recalls. As well they might, given the GOP fortunes in the days of Mayor Richard J. Daley. "They may have been looking for a warm body."

Hyde first ran for Congress in 1962 "as a lark," he says, losing but making it close and spending only $20,000, a shoestring budget even then. Five years later, a state representative from Chicago's inner suburbs died and Hyde won the seat. He was elected to the House in 1974 and has never looked back.

Neither has he ever really looked forward. In the 6th District, Hyde is an enormous fish in a relatively small pond and has been frequently mentioned as a senatorial candidate or as an aspirant for appointive federal office.

Corboy, today one of the best-known personal injury lawyers in the country, says he once offered to put Hyde on the inside track to become FBI director. "I would be interested, but I would overcome that interest," Corboy recalls Hyde telling him. "I'm very happy where I am."

Daniels, the Illinois House minority leader, got the same answer when he asked Hyde about running for the Senate in 1996. "I wasn't the only one to ask him," Daniels says. "It's kind of understood that if Henry wanted to seek another office, he could."

That year he told reporters he was too old for the race, but mused: "I'd be a great senator – God, I'd be so arrogant!"

Besides advancing age and happiness, money may contribute to Hyde's apparent lack of ambition. Hyde spends about $200,000 every two years to hold on to a safe House seat and is clearly aware that it takes $5 million to $10 million to run for the Senate in Illinois. "I'm terrible at raising money," he says. "It would be a major undertaking, and nobody ever said to me, 'Would you like to run? We'll help you raise money.'"

And, like many career politicians, he doesn't have much of his own. Besides his $136,700 House salary, his financial disclosure statements show one credit union account worth between $50,000 and $100,000 and a smaller IRA. His office says he also has mortgages on condominiums in his district and in Falls Church.

If the Republicans hold the House, Hyde must give up his chairmanship in 2000, but he has no plans to retire – ever: "I dread it," Hyde says. "Somebody suggested that just recently and I told him: 'The next time you ask me that, you're going to have to bend down so I can tell you to get off my oxygen hose.'"

True Believer

Despite his reputation for passionately held positions, Hyde maintains he has "mellowed somewhat" because "I never assume I have all the answers." His willingness to listen has given him a new role in recent years as a referee among the factions of his own party.

In 1996, presidential candidate Bob Dole chose Hyde to head the platform committee at the 1996 Republican convention so he could head off clashes between party moderates and anti-abortion conservatives. The platform retained its opposition to abortion, but added language to smooth relations with moderates.

And Judiciary Committee colleague Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) says Hyde recently interceded with anti-abortion groups who believe Hutchinson's campaign finance reform proposals interfere with their First Amendment rights.

Hutchinson, a freshman, appreciated the help, but the less pragmatic revolutionaries of the Class of 1994 have often challenged Hyde – on term limits, on law and order, on search and seizure and a variety of other constitutional issues.

"They are good people and idealistic," Hyde says. "If anybody can be said to be idealistic to a fault, they can be," he adds, particularly when they denigrate seniority and the other traditions of his beloved House.

"It really does grate on me," Hyde says. "People don't understand how painful this development of self-government is. This is a great place, and people demean it. They don't realize what it cost to create."

But in the end, the rebels are probably much closer to Hyde than they imagine. In 1990, invited to address newly elected House members, he responded with a spellbinder, snatches of which he repeats every once in a while when a matter close to his heart makes it to the floor.

"Let me put the matter plainly," he told the newcomers. "If you are here simply as a tote board registering the current state of opinion in your district, you are not going to serve either your constituents of the Congress of the United States well. There are things worth losing for."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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