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The Judiciary Chairman's Trying Times

Hyde House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A01

    Henry Hyde has no one to cook for him anymore, so he eats breakfast at the Hyatt on Capitol Hill. Egg Beaters with sliced tomatoes, decaf coffee, half a grapefruit. That's after the Capitol Police pick him up for work at his Falls Church condo sometime after 5:30 a.m., which is when he lumbers out of bed.

    Hyde accepts the security detail. The Illinois Republican is not one to embrace the imagery of self-importance, but death threats are serious. He accepts a lot these days because his life has been converted into a small closet from which there is no escape. "I haven't driven my car in about a month and a half now," he quips. "I hope it will start."

    On history's doorstep, the gregarious veteran of nearly 24 years in the House – to his friends Henry the Wise Man, Henry the paragon of fairness, but to the women's movement and many Democrats a tireless symbol of antiabortion intolerance – promised an impeachment process of high ideals and bipartisan comity. Instead, the Henry Hyde running the marathon hearings is exasperated, trapped, besieged, sometimes angry.

    This Henry Hyde can't control the quarrelers in either party, can't live up to the advance press notices, can't be the benevolent patriarch that official Washington had expected for such a momentous occasion. This Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, gave independent counsel Kenneth Starr a standing O. When the Democrats kicked up a ruckus and fulminated about GOP partisanship, Hyde fought back largely with teasing jabs and frustrated growls of "Let's move on."

    "This whole process has been a downer," he says, "because it's so polarizing. . . . There is such a high intensity on both sides that it is stressful, extremely stressful."

    Washington is the grand stage of the Big Event – the prospect of impeaching an American president comes along only once or twice a century. Hyde, for all of his Jackie Gleason one-liner ease, is basting – not basking – in the moment.

    He is 74 years old and can see the sunset of his career just beyond the horizon. His mind is still quick and sharp, but his gait has slowed to a waddle. Major prostate surgery in 1989 has left him with a "physical adversity," as his friend Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) delicately puts it. Long hours in public are uncomfortable. Hyde lost his wife six years ago to breast cancer, a blow from which he has not recovered. He does not confide in others easily. The book and the lamp are his best friends.

    And so here he is, with the fate of the presidency at his gavel, wondering what history will record of his service.

    "You want to be thought well of by the people you work with," he says. "You like to earn their respect. I would like that to be my legacy – that I was a good congressman, I accomplished some things, and that when my time comes I'll be missed. If I can attain that, I'll be quite happy."

    There are sure to be comparisons to Sam Ervin, the Democratic senator from North Carolina whose stature was elevated during Watergate. Ervin opposed virtually all civil rights legislation in his heyday, but when he died in 1985 it was hard to find that part of his legacy in the obits. As chairman of the committee that investigated Richard Nixon's campaign practices, Ervin became a kind of folk hero in the land, large enough to warrant his own "Senator Sam" T-shirts and buttons, a country-lawyer type with jiggling jowls and a humorous way of expressing his moral indignation. He quoted Mark Twain and the Bible, and was downright cutting in slicing Nixon's men down to size.

    In appointing him to head what became known as the Ervin Committee, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said: "Sam is the only man we could have selected on either side who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole."

    There is a lot of Ervin in Hyde, but the 6-foot-5 giant with the lineman's girth looks rather withered right now. Worked over, as if he owes somebody a lot of money.

    Democrats have trampled all over his reputation for judiciousness, claiming he has presided over a partisan hunt for Oval Office blood. "I had thought that Hyde would run a fair and impartial process," says Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "And he has run a kangaroo court instead."

    Even some Republican sideliners have carped about his leadership, especially after the committee's decision last week to veer its inquiry off the road into Democratic fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign. (That idea was scrapped two days after it was hatched.)

    And there have been the personal embarrassments: In September, the Internet magazine Salon disclosed an adulterous affair Hyde had in the 1960s with a married woman whose husband at the time now accuses him of breaking up his family.

    "He was criticized for calling it a youthful indiscretion," says Dreier, coming to the rescue of his close friend. "But he's 74 years old. He was 41 then. It's all relative."

    Dreier talks to Hyde regularly, but spent more time than usual with him during the firestorm about his dalliance. They went to dinner several times. As a comfort to his pal, Dreier offered Hyde a Pavarotti CD he knew Hyde was fond of. "He was upset, very unhappy," says Dreier. "Obviously, there was regret about the whole thing."

    It wasn't helpful to Hyde's image that the former lover and her daughter then emerged to challenge his account of the affair, saying it went on longer and was more significant than Hyde had let on. And in the heat of the hearings, his reputation has suffered other nicks and scratches. Last week, the Los Angeles Times published Hyde's shifting views about lying – his nuanced perspective on deception in 1987 when he defended the Reagan administration in the Iran-contra hearings vs. his more rigid intolerance of lies in President Clinton's case.

    "Context is everything," Hyde explained. But Democrats, led by Rep. Maxine Waters of California, were quick to exploit what they viewed as an outrageous contradiction. And that is the way it has been in the committee. Punch, counterpunch. No letup.

    "There's no real joy involved in looking for evidence leading towards impeachment," Hyde said. "It is extremely unpleasant."

    And apart from the Democrats, there is the public's reaction to what he is doing.

    "Some of my mail is incendiary," he says. "Some of it is very nice. Some of it is very reassuring. I have a lot of people praying for me. But there are a lot of people that are haters too out there."

    Escape can be helpful.

    Two months ago, Hyde returned to Chicago and to his boyhood pals for a relaxing evening over beef tenderloin and Diet Cokes. Eight of them, including Hyde, gathered at lawyer Philip Corboy's Water Tower condo. Four Democrats, four Republicans.

    "We talked about Sister Delores in grammar school, Brother Luke Clemente in high school, about how we learned to diagram sentences in fifth grade," Corboy said. "We talked about girls in all of those years. We talked about how arduous a task he had. Nobody envied it."

    Hyde, as usual, was the raconteur, telling his famous story of how he once saved a man from committing suicide by borrowing a policeman's gun. The evening reinvigorated Hank, as his old buddies call him, at a time when he was down.

    "I think he enjoyed seeing guys, some of whom he has known 90 percent of his life," said Corboy. "His innermost feelings are that he'd rather not be up there. But he can't get out. This is his Gethsemane."

    He has become short-tempered. Sometimes he wants to ditch his skin and crawl away – out of the maelstrom.

    You can see his eyes periodically wash over the audience in Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, scanning from behind those big windowpane glasses, looking at no one special, just drifting. There is a blankness.

    He leaves the rostrum from time to time and watches the proceedings on the tube from a wing chair in his office. Sometimes he'll take a few puffs on a cigar. He is not close to anyone on the committee, and most know little of his personal life. Most nights he has dinner out with his chief of staff, Tom Mooney, heads home, reads, watches a little television and turns out the lights by 11:30.

    The others on the committee don't hear Hyde talk about his wife of 45 years, Jeanne, who died in 1992 after a long bout with breast cancer. The end came at Manor Care Nursing Center in Arlington, her home town. She was 67 and Hyde took it hard.

    The couple met while she was a student at George Washington and he was attending Georgetown, where he played basketball. The Hydes had three sons – Henry Jr., Robert and Anthony – and a daughter, Laura. They have helped him get through the death of their mother and this impeachment process. "They call me just about every night," Hyde says. "They tell me how tired I'm looking and I tell them how vivacious I feel."

    Hyde can never pack away the wit. Not for a second. The wit is how he deals with many of life's discomforts.

    "He is the most revered member on the Republican side of the House," says Dan Meyer, former chief of staff to outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich. "But you can't categorize him. You can't peg him."

    He is a man who finds the tranquillity of the ocean's waves boring. He once cut short a Hawaiian vacation and flew back home. He's the most recognizable abortion opponent in the land, a saint among conservative moralists. And yet he was one of the few Republicans in the House to support Clinton's family and medical leave bill.

    He represents an affluent suburban Chicago district that includes Hillary Rodham Clinton's home town, but he grew up poor as an Irish Catholic Democrat. He blames Eleanor Roosevelt's newspaper column for driving him to the Republican Party. Chicago magazine called him a Tory, which seems right, a moniker that connotes decorum and tradition.

    And that's what committee member William Delahunt saw in the hallway the other evening – a latter-day emblem of grace. Never mind the political differences. With a gaggle of reporters surrounding him, Hyde approached the Massachusetts Democrat, who offered some kind words for the record.

    "Did you hear that?" Hyde tells the press horde, grinning. "Hold on to that thought."

    As he rounds the corner toward his Rayburn congressional office, the media pack is confronted by furniture land mines – desks stacked on their sides, discarded end tables. "Watch yourself," he implores the scribblers. "We'll get impaled."

    He reaches Room 2110, and a guard ushers him in. It will be another quiet evening for the chairman, alone with his books and his phone.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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