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'Unshakable' Hyde Fights to the Finish

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, January 24, 1999; Page A17

    He's been vilified, ridiculed, undercut and sometimes ignored, but if Rep. Henry J. Hyde has made anything clear in recent days, it is that he wants a full impeachment trial complete with witnesses and will never give up until the Senate either grants him one or slams the door in his face.

    The Illinois Republican "is on fire to make sure" the trial comes to an up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the 13 members of Hyde's prosecution team. No early dismissal, no adjournment, no shortened case. "He believes this president trashed the rule of law, and he's unshakable that this case be heard. He's always been our compass."

    It is said on Capitol Hill that one cannot get in the face of the U.S. Senate, peopled by 100 legislative demigods who never take advice, and who detest lectures by anyone but themselves.

    But Hyde and his House "managers" appear unwilling to show such deference, and if the prosecution cannot convince 67 senators to throw Clinton out of office, it will not be for lack of trying. Virtually from the moment the House passed two articles of impeachment Dec. 19, the managers have fought like wildcats for a full airing of their case, and Hyde has been at the helm for the entire voyage.

    He has not been timid. During the trial yesterday, he even dared to shame the Senate by first gently noting that "there are issues of transcendent importance that you have to be willing to lose your office over." Then, with his voice catching yet full with conviction, he challenged the Senate to follow his example:

    "Despite all the polls and the hostile editorials, America is hungry for people who believe in something," Hyde continued. "You may disagree with us, but we believe in something."

    And he and his team have been eternally vigilant. Late last year, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he didn't want witnesses. Hyde sent him a letter urging him to reconsider and Lott responded by presenting the managers with a Senate resolution that could at least countenance witnesses. Not good enough. The managers refused to endorse it.

    The managers tried to interview Monica S. Lewinsky. Lewinsky wouldn't cooperate, and Senate Democrats were furious. So the managers got a court order yesterday compelling Lewinsky's testimony, and the Democrats were volcanic.

    "It is mind-boggling, absolutely mind-boggling," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "It's almost as though the House wants to get the Senate into the same kind of mistakes they made." All the way into work yesterday morning, he said, he wondered "why they would do anything that stupid. All I can think of is that they're losing it."

    Manager George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) was not impressed. "We have a case to prepare, and witnesses are in our purview," he told reporters around lunchtime. "Do we have to check with them to know what kind of paper to take notes on?"

    During yesterday's afternoon trial session, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) suggested a way to smooth things over. Would the managers give the Senate a transcript of the Lewinsky interview? "No," Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) told senators seated silently before him. "The answer to your question is 'No.'"

    And a few hours later, Hyde sent Daschle a two-page, single-spaced letter that finished with the observation that "with all due respect to the Senate, the rules and the constitutional principles of bicameralism do not require that the House obtain the permission of the Senate merely to conduct an interview of a potential witness."

    For months it was assumed that the rank-and-file Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee the font of the House managers could be counted on to give a highly ideological cast to the presidential impeachment. Committee Chairman Hyde, 74, one of the GOP's elder statesmen always fair, always polite was supposed to provide balance and perspective.

    Then, when impeachment passed the House, critics suggested that Hyde had sold out to his party's extremists. It wasn't suggested at least not immediately that Hyde was simply comfortable with his assistants.

    Balance, yes, fairness, yes, "gravitas, above all," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who is beginning only his third term, while Hyde is in his 13th. "We looked up to him when we weren't in the House," Chabot says. "He has a tremendous amount of presence."

    Within his team of managers, colleagues describe Hyde as a consensus builder, willing to make the tough calls, but thus far keeping everybody on the same page. "He's an anchor for all of us," Chabot said. "We've not really ever wavered or been scared."

    When Lott late last year told the Associated Press that he didn't think witnesses were necessary in the trial, Hyde, without consulting the other managers, sent him a letter of complaint within hours, and gave it to reporters before Lott saw it. "It was absolutely necessary to lay down a marker as soon as possible," a Judiciary Committee source said.

    Impeachment probably cost the Republicans seats in the House in last November's election. It may also have cost then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his would-be successor, Bob Livingston (R-La.), their jobs, and it has driven the GOP's poll numbers into the ground.

    But after briefly considering the political ramifications of what they were doing, the managers have never looked back. Chabot was amazed at the question. "If we were looking at the politics, we would have folded our hands months ago," he said.

    And when highly respected Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) on Friday said he would move to dismiss the case, Hyde was not cowed, taking the first opportunity to make a possibly impolitic, almost impolite protest.

    "I know, oh, do I know what an annoyance we are in the bosom of this great body, but we are a constitutional annoyance," he told the Senate. "And I remind you of that fact."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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