Report of Hyde Affair Stirs Anger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A15
A bitter new sexual controversy erupted on Capitol Hill yesterday after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) acknowledged to a left-leaning magazine that he had a five-year affair with a married woman in the 1960s.
Hyde made the admission after the online magazine Salon, which has relentlessly attacked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, told his office it was publishing details of his affair with a former beauty stylist named Cherie Snodgrass. Hyde, 74, who would head any inquiry into impeaching President Clinton, is the third Republican lawmaker in two weeks to acknowledge an affair after being confronted by a journalist.
"The statute of limitations has long since passed on my youthful indiscretions," Hyde said in a statement. "Suffice it to say Cherie Snodgrass and I were good friends a long, long time ago. After Mr. Snodgrass confronted my wife, the friendship ended and my marriage remained intact. The only purpose for this being dredged up now is an obvious attempt to intimidate me and it won't work. I intend to fulfill my constitutional duty and deal judiciously with the serious felony allegations presented to Congress in the Starr report."
Both the White House and Salon flatly denied that any administration staffer was involved, and Clinton's deputy chief of staff, John D. Podesta, called Hyde with the same message. A Florida retiree confirmed last night that he had passed the allegation to Salon without the administration's involvement. But in an environment already made tense over the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation and Republican jitters about White House counterattacks, the 30-year-old affair quickly became a political flash point.
"The latest attack on Chairman Henry Hyde, launched by Salon -- a close ally of the Clinton White House -- is the most despicable, most disgraceful, most disgusting piece of rumormongering that I have ever seen," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Replied White House press secretary Michael McCurry: "Someone should explain to Mr. DeLay that statements like this only give the press further reason to report a story that should be buried to begin with."
David Talbot, Salon's editor and author of the piece, said he published it because "the Starr report and enemies of President Clinton have rewritten the rules. Once Starr submitted a report filled with nothing but a sexual relationship, then his supporters -- people sitting in judgment of the president -- are fair game. Hyde has been built up so much in the press as this august figure, a great statesman."
Talbot, who last spring chatted with the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a White House party, said his Washington bureau chief, Jonathan Broder, refused to pursue the story months ago. Asked for comment, Broder said he had "argued strenuously" against publication. "I objected to it on journalistic grounds, on grounds of fairness and because of the way Salon would be perceived," Broder said.
Podesta said he told Hyde that if anyone at the White House had any involvement with the story, "they'd be fired immediately." Podesta added: "We've been subjected to this ugliness ourselves and know how painful it is." If a staff member was involved, he said, "I will personally kick anyone's ass out the door."
White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and other officials denied during a senior staff meeting yesterday that they had worked with Salon on the Hyde story. ABC News reported last night that two unnamed journalists say a senior White House official had peddled to them a story that Hyde once had a girlfriend. McCurry said he had called ABC and "violently objected" when the network, citing confidential sources, refused to tell him the name of the White House official allegedly involved.
Ironically, Hyde issued a memo to Judiciary Committee members Monday about news reports that Clinton's allies "may be attempting to collect and disseminate derogatory personal information about members of Congress" as part of a " 'scorched earth' policy." He said that "efforts to intimidate members of Congress" may be a violation of federal law and that the panel would refer such matters to the Justice Department if necessary.
Salon recently reported that White House sources were targeting Hyde and other Republican lawmakers for possible leaks involving their personal lives.
Talbot said Salon learned of the allegation from Norm Sommer, a Florida retiree and lifelong Democrat who is a friend of Snodgrass's ex-husband. Sommer did not disguise his partisan motivation, saying in an interview that he is outraged over the Lewinsky investigation and what he called "a campaign to get this president."
"There's no statute of limitations on Henry Hyde," Sommer said. "He's the biggest phony in Washington, the icon of moral rectitude. Why should this guy be a de facto judge on whether there should be impeachment when he's guilty of an adulterous affair?"
Sommer said he had called 57 journalists over six months in an effort to publicize the story Snodgrass had told him. He said reporters for the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe expressed interest but were overruled by editors. Sommer said that he also called the White House and Democratic National Committee for guidance but that "nobody would speak to me."
According to Salon, Hyde's affair began in 1965, a year before he was elected to the Illinois House. Hyde, who was married, was 41, and Snodgrass was 29. Her ex-husband, Fred, gave Salon two photographs of Hyde with his ex-wife. One was inscribed, "I love you Cherie!!!!" and signed "Hank, Dec. 30, 1966."
Fred Snodgrass, a former Chicago furniture salesman, said in an interview that Hyde is a "super hypocrite" who broke up his marriage. "He had an affair with a young woman with three little children," said Snodgrass, 76. "At least the president picked on a single woman."
Snodgrass said Hyde "conned" his ex-wife and later set her up in an apartment. "He was a good-looking guy, spent a lot of money on her, took her places," Snodgrass said. But Snodgrass said he would not have gone public with the story because "I'm not the type." Cherie Snodgrass could not be located last night.
Two leading Clinton critics, Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), have acknowledged extramarital affairs in the last two weeks after being confronted by newspapers in their states. But the Salon story has struck a larger nerve.
"People at the very highest levels of the White House are involved in this," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who offered no evidence.
Democrats are worried about a backlash. "It is totally despicable and in fact legitimizes everything we've been fighting against to use this kind of an issue against Chairman Hyde, much less anyone else in Congress," said former White House lawyer Lanny Davis.
"I think this Hyde thing is a big mistake," a congressional Democrat complained.
Said a member of the House GOP leadership staff: "No member is more respected by people on both sides of the aisle. Dragging Hyde through the mud just shows what these people are really about."
Staff writers John F. Harris and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company