"I'm an ogre," he says. "The Planned Parenthood people have a pamphlet out that makes me look like a Dracula drinking blood." And on the House floor, pro-abortion forces refer to him as the diabolical Hyde, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the besieged author of the anti-abortion Hyde amendment upheld Monday by the Supreme Court, appears to others as a likable ideologue catapulted into political stardom and maybe a U.S. history book because he believes that abortion is murder. Or "extermination," as he refers to it.
Beyond that, he says, he just happened to be there.
"When an issue develops," he explains, his voice coming thick and rich from the 260-pound frame, "you either evade it, or you grapple with it, and I grappled with it. Now it's grappling back."
Like yesterday, the day after the Court ruled 5-4 that federal and state governments don't have to help the poor women pay for most abortions. Hyde, who shorn of his amendment might still be the unknown congressman from Bensonville, had become cheerleader for a cause.
Or villian. Said Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America: "The lack of compassion and the lack of understanding toward those whose station in life differs from Mr. Hyde's perception of what it should be . . . I find unbelievable."
And her organization publicly called the amendment "a national disgrace."
"The issue consumes a lot of time," sighs Hyde from one of the big leather chairs in his office, meaty hands gripping the armrests, "like today's interviews. You wouldn't be here if I weren't involved in this issue, nor would Newsweek, nor would Time, nor would the "Today" show, nor would anybody. But it's an important issue. "Someone once said," he continues, "that we can't be great, but we can attach ourselves to something that is great.
"Hell no, I'm not great. I'm a spearcarrier in the opera. And way in the back, I might add."
Although he received an 86 rating from the American Conservative Union last year, Hyde has also carried the spear for foreign aid and battered spouses. "Henry is what I call a responsible conservative compared to being a dogmatic or fanatical conservative," says Rep. Edward Derwinski, the Illinois Republican who has known him for 20 years.
Hyde is also the 56-year-old Roman Catholic son of a telephone company coin collector from Chicago, a background that often results in "ahas!" from those who explain his stand as rooted in unreasonable religion.
His brother was adopted. "This is subliminal," he says, "but because of that I've felt close to people who have had no parents. My brother was the finest person I ever met in my life and that may have created some concern with me."
Hyde was educated at parochial schools, then attended Georgetown and law school at Loyola University. All he ever planned to be, he says, was a lawyer. But as happens to lots of lawyers who tire of legal briefs, he wound up a politician in the Illinois General Assembly. Soon enough he was majority leader in the Illinois House.
And then Washington. He lives in Falls Church, has a wife and four kids and drives a faded 1974 Oldsmobile he calls his "creampuff." He loves dinnertime. "I've been known to eat the initial off the plate," he says. There are two zucchini approaching the size of baseball bats in his office "in" basket, pictures of Ronald Reagan and Joe DiMaggio on his office walls, a television set near his desk. A GOP elephant adorns his tie. He loves "Laverne and Shirley," calling them "two sincere factory girls from Milwaukee."
Much of his suburban Chicago district is full of real-life Lavernes and Shirleys, many of them the blue collar Poles, Slavs and Lithuanians of Berwyn and Cicero. And many of them Catholic, something that evokes another "aha!" from those who say his anti-abortion stand is a politcally expedient one.
He denies this, saying it hurts as much as it helps. Members of the Illinois delegation, Democrats as well as Republicans, tend to agree with him. "Many parts of his district are largely Catholic," says Rep. Cardiss Collins, the liberal Democrat from Chicago, "but I think it's something that he feels more than his district."
"I cannot say this is a Catholic issue," says Hyde. "I view the abortion question as a civil rights issue. In every era, some group of people is dehumanized . . . the slaves, the Jews in Hitler's Germany. Lately it's been the unborn."
It was in 1968 as a member of the Illinois House that Hyde, a popular, joke-telling politician with silver hair, says he first started studying the abortion issue. He read, he ruminated, and eventually came to the conclusion that an unborn fetus was life and thus aborting it was causing death. An "incremental awareness," he calls this study period.
And it was in 1976 that Hyde, the freshman congressman who got "great thrills" when the Capitol dome appeared through his windshield each morning, introduced his controversial amendment. He was as surprised as anyone when it passed that year as an appropriations measure tacked on to the proposed budget for the Department of Labor and the then-department of Health, Education and Welfare.
And he was as surprised as anyone when he suddenly became a rallying post for the "pro-life" forces.
"I think his leadership of the issue has been a matter of timing, rather than choice," says U.S. Circuit Judge Abner Mikva, the former liberal Democratic congressman from Illinois whose district bordered Hyde's. "Early in his congressional career, I remember sitting with him saying, 'Henry, there's a danger that you can get typecast and put off in a corner somewhere.'"
"I think he's quite right," responds Hyde, "but how do you get away from an issue like this? You don't suddenly take a baton and give it to another legislator and say, 'Now you run with it.' There's just no way I can lessen the decibels, the level of intensity of interest, without demeaning the cause." t
Adds Mikva: "I have a feeling there have been times Henry would have liked to have somebody take the issue over so he could go on to other things."
But the issue remains, left to evolve from a blockbuster decision made in Washington into real social change that will creep its way into the lives of welfare mothers.Hyde hasn't met many of them.
But they call in on talk shows a lot.
"I talk to many of them," he says. "Oh, sure."
So how does he feel, he's asked, when a poor mother of 12 is broke and distraught over a coming 13th?
"Well, he responds, "I keep thinking of the unborn child. I keep thinking of the little bucket, or the little plastic bag, with the human life in it. And, ah, I keep thinking that our society ought to have an answer other than death for this problem." Pause. "I gotta run to vote."
And he does.
When Hyde comes back from the vote, maybe 10 minutes later, his staffers have brought him a newspaper.
"Ah ha ha," he says, "all right. That's what somebody told me, that I was on the cover of the Boston Globe. I don't look very good, look at that. My mouth is open, however, which is characteristic.I don't think it's flattering. But it's me, my God, it's me."