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Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.)
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the House Judiciary Committee chairman. (Ray Lustig – The Washington Post)


Related Links
_ Congressional Guide Profiles: Henry Hyde, House Judiciary Committee

_ 2 Democrats Pressure Burton to Step Down (Washington Post, May 11)

_ Judiciary Committee in Impeachment Light (Washington Post, March 30)

_ Legal Guide: Untangling the Issues


Unimpeachable Character

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 12, 1998; Page D01

On this point Republicans and Democrats seem to agree: If somebody has to lead an impeachment inquiry into whether President Clinton tried to get people to lie about his relationships with the help, then Henry Hyde's the best man for the job.

Indeed, perhaps the only man. Almost everyone else in the House Republican first string is either running for president or speaker or calling Clinton indecorous names.

"There's not a whole lot of depth over here," muses Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the conservative iconoclast who almost always says what he thinks.

And what there is is stretched to the limit. The House's campaign finance probe has all but melted down under the leadership of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who says he thinks Clinton is a "scumbag."

But there is Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. At 74, this onetime all-star basketball player from the suburban shadow of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has reached a pinnacle that few lawmakers ever achieve.

In 24 years in the House, he has built one of the highest profiles in Congress. He has put his mark on almost every aspect of national policy, and starred in every role that has come his way, whether as a fervent anti-abortion advocate, defender of the Reagan administration during the Iran-contra affair, or point man for Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pushing the "Contract With America."

At some point he has probably infuriated every one of his colleagues, Republican or Democrat, either because of his ideological intransigence or his willingness to carry water for leaders with whom he does not always agree.

But in the end, he has managed to maintain a reputation for evenhandedness, patience and restraint – a remarkable feat for someone known both for his savagely held beliefs and for his keen sense of which way the wind blows.

"He's ideologically quite passionate, but he doesn't allow that passion to make him unfair," says Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Hyde's liberal opposite on the Judiciary Committee. "That's not common, not only for a Republican, but for a human being."

"He's absolutely fair on process," says the acerbic Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), one of the Judiciary Committee's few non-lawyers and a fierce partisan. "So if I had to have a Republican in charge, I would choose him – given the selection."

Plenty of House Republicans would like to see him in charge, too. "Of course Hyde would be a more judicious choice than somebody who called the president a 'scumbag,'" says one Republican on the campaign finance panel who refused to be quoted by name. "Unfortunately, that's not the way things work around here."

The House currently awaits the report of any "impeachable offenses" by Clinton that independent counsel Kenneth Starr may have unearthed during nearly four years investigating everything from Arkansas land speculation to lying about a possible dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Gingrich may not send the report directly to the Judiciary Committee for an impeachment inquiry, the traditional route, but instead may appoint a small select committee or other ad hoc group to review it.

Republican leadership sources say Gingrich needs pre-screening to "determine what he has in his hands." Others suggest Gingrich wants to make the report go away because the Lewinsky matter may not provide anything to impeach Clinton with.

Either way, Gingrich has promised, Hyde will chair any organism that handles the Starr report.

For now, Hyde is not saying much. "I have no idea" what would constitute an impeachable offense, he says. "It has to be something serious that is an abuse of office."

But how serious? And how much of an abuse?

"That's a tough question," he says. "If there are marginal instances, the committee will benefit from collegiality, but nothing is going to culminate in a successful impeachment unless the American people move. The politicians will follow."

A Towering Presence

Clinton's would-be Grand Inquisitor, by his own admission, "could lose 100 pounds," but at 6 feet 3, Hyde can handle the bulk. And with his large head, flowing white hair and carefully graceful movements, he looks, on the House floor or anywhere else, as though he owns the place.

"The job suits him like a glove," says Mayor Thomas Marcucci (R) of Elmhurst, Ill., one of the prosperous towns in Hyde's 6th Congressional District. "He enjoys it, and he's totally engaged. He has a presence. He fills a room. You always know Mr. Hyde has arrived."

According to friends and colleagues, Hyde pretty much always had the ability to charm acquaintances and disarm enemies. "He was a fabulous raconteur at 6," says Chicago trial lawyer Philip H. Corboy, a boyhood friend. Older girls liked him, Corboy recalls, and he could entertain a room with magic tricks and sleight of hand.

"Oh, I was good!" Hyde says with a laugh, delighted that someone remembered.

As an adult, he relies on jokes, quips and nonstop banter. Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.) recalls how Hyde defused a pressure-packed Judiciary Committee hearing after a contentious member finished speaking and decided to "yield back the balance of my time."

Replied Hyde: "You don't know how grateful we are."

And Frank tells how Hyde one-upped him when both were presenting a bill at a recent committee hearing that had been delayed for a few minutes:

"I stand at the ready," Hyde told Frank.

"Where's the ready?" asked Frank.

"I'll give you the phone number," countered Hyde.

But Hyde's trademark public relations tool is his eloquence. State Rep. Lee Daniels (R), the Illinois House minority leader, says people go to Hyde's annual congressional dinner "just to hear him speak." Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) calls his frequent ally in Congress's abortion battles "probably the best orator in the House. If you've got Henry Hyde, you always want him to close the debate."

And Graham, now the junior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, still hasn't fully recovered from Hyde's brilliant House floor speech of March 29, 1995, decrying term limits – which Graham was backing – as "the dumbing down of democracy" and extolling the virtues of career politicians: "America needs leaders. It needs statesmen," Hyde said that day. "It needs giants, and you do not get them out of the phone book."

Graham, a firebrand freshman at the time, watched his hopes drain away in five minutes. "It was full of sarcasm and biting wit; it was well-prepared and passionate. That's what you get when you tangle with him," he says. "And then there's the subtext. It's a nice way of saying, 'You think you know a lot, but slow down a bit.' When I first came here I thought Henry Hyde was just one of those old guys who stick around because they have nothing else better to do. Wrong! I found out different that day."

Winning Ways

With all the nice things people say about Hyde – his evenhandedness, his courtliness, his erudition, his statesmanship – it's sometimes easy to forget how much he likes to win.

And Hyde's not bashful about it. An all-Chicago basketball center in high school, he was a freshman sub at Georgetown when he went in to guard future Hall of Famer George Mikan, playing for DePaul, in the second half of the Eastern regional finals of the 1943 NCAA tournament.

Hyde had played against Mikan in high school and knew that he always peeked over his shoulder in the direction he was going to shoot. Hyde also knew that the referee was a hot dog so intent on making dramatic gestures that he took his eyes off the play when a shooter made his move.

"So just as Mikan was about to shoot, I gave him a little push," Hyde says with a grin. "Oh, it's great to be young!"

Mikan scored only one point in the second half, and Georgetown won the game 53-49 (but lost the championship to the University of Wyoming the next week).

He's still giving little pushes. "He's very charming, and he'll steal your lunch," Graham says. "He grabs your heart and steps on it, and you're smiling all the time. And you better be prepared."

At the same time, though, Hyde likes to be known as modest in victory, gracious in defeat, and willing, as he says, to give committee Democrats "every opportunity to 'point with pride at' or 'view with alarm'" whatever's going on.

But in the end, if he's got the votes, he'll roll over the opposition and not apologize for it – which is the way of the House. He doesn't do it as often as some, and "his sense of humor is very calming," says Gekas. "His presence is one of equanimity, balance and fairness."

Graciousness has its limits, though. Hyde remembers a running battle he had with the speaker of the Illinois House when he was majority leader in the early 1970s. When the smoke cleared in 1974, Hyde was on his way to Congress and the speaker had lost his seat.

"I engaged in the most shameless act of self-indulgence," Hyde says. "I went out and bought the biggest cigar I could find and walked down the aisle smoking it and flicking the ashes on the carpet." If it happened today, he adds, "I'd probably have two cigars."

Continue to Part 2

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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