In September 1984, I had a sabbatical year at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. One day—while I was having lunch with a Seattle congressman, Joel Pritchard, then in the midst of a bout of chemotherapy—a portly gentleman came up to our table to ask Joel how he was feeling. Congressman Pritchard introduced me to Congressman Henry Hyde, who politely asked what I was doing in town. I explained that I was exploring Catholic thought on war and peace at the Wilson Center. Hyde smiled and went off to his own lunch.
Fifteen minutes later, he came back and asked me, “Have you ever written anything on church and state?” I replied that I had and would be happy to send him some things, which I did. As it turned out, Hyde had been asked to give a lecture at the Notre Dame Law School in response to the “I’m personally opposed, but . . . ” abortion politics of Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro. (Note to younger readers: Cuomo was a three-term governor of New York; Ferraro was the vice-presidential candidate on a ticket that carried one state and the District of Columbia.) So I pitched in with the drafting of the speech, which was intended both as a rebuttal to Cuomoism and as a positive statement of how Catholic understandings of the dignity of the human person should engage the public square—a phrase then just coming into the national vocabulary.
From such an accidental beginning came one of the great friendships of my life and a twenty-year collaboration that would teach me a lot about how American politics really works.
Henry Hyde, who died on November 29, 2007, was, without exaggeration, a singularity. As Clement Attlee once said of Winston Churchill, Henry’s personality resembled a layer cake. There was the Hyde who reveled in the contact sport that is Illinois politics and who regaled friends with Mr. Dooley-like stories of campaign shenanigans and naughtiness (on both sides of the partisan divide). And there was the Hyde who was a close student of history, one of the most avid readers in the House of Representatives.
There was the Hyde who was the undisputed legislative leader of the American pro-life movement, the man who almost single-handedly kept the federal treasury out of the abortion business. And there was the Hyde who defied some conservative orthodoxies by arguing that it was nonsensical to claim that the Second Amendment created a constitutional right for eighteen-year-olds to own AK-47s and other assault weapons.
There was the Hyde whom Cokie Roberts (no conservative) once described to me as “the smartest man in Congress.” And there was the Hyde who was one of the best joke-tellers of all time.
There was Hyde, the ambitious politician. And there was the Hyde who passed up what would turn out, later, to be a chance to become Speaker of the House, because he had given his word to minority leader Bob Michel to vote for Michel’s candidate for whip.
There was the Hyde who was a master of rhetorical cut and thrust, the greatest extemporaneous debater in recent congressional history. And there was the Hyde whom the likes of Nancy Pelosi liked, respected, and perhaps even came to love.
One indelible memory that captures Henry Hyde in full involved Thanksgiving 1986. Henry’s prostate was giving him grief, so he spent the holiday in Georgetown University Hospital. When I went to visit him on Thanksgiving Day, I found him sitting up in bed, tubes running in and out of him, smoking a six-inch-long cigar, watching TV as his beloved Bears played the Lions—and reading a massive tome on William Wilberforce, the British parliamentary scourge of the slave trade. I asked Henry whether he’d had a lot of visitors. He replied that a guy who was interested in running for his seat had come in and expressed grave concern. Said Henry, in a growling whisper, “I told him, ‘The last words you’ll ever hear me say are gonna be, “Get your foot off the oxygen hose.”’” He loved the U.S. House of Representatives, and, while he made important contributions to foreign policy as one who married a profound concern for international human rights to a principled anticommunism, I think Henry most enjoyed chairing the Judiciary Committee after the Republicans took control of the House in January 1995. His remarks during the committee’s first meeting under his chairmanship are worth remembering:
In our American system, justice is not an abstraction. Like all the virtues, justice is a moral habit; we become a just society by acting justly. The duty to “promote justice,” which we lay upon ourselves when we pledge to defend the Constitution, is a duty we exercise through the instrument of the law. [For] the “rule of law” distinguishes civilized societies from barbarism.
That simple phrase—“the rule of law”—should lift our hearts. To be sure, it has little of the evocative power of Lincoln’s call to rebuild a national community with “malice toward none” and “charity for all”; to celebrate the “rule of law” may stir our souls less than MacArthur’s moving call to “Duty, Honor, Country.” But if that phrase lacks the eloquence of Lincoln and MacArthur, it nonetheless calls us to a noble way of life.
Legislators—makers of laws in a democratic republic—are involved in a vital task. Ours is not just a job; public service in the Congress is not just a career. What we do here we ought to do as a matter of vocation: as a matter of giving flesh and blood to our convictions about justice—our moral duty to give everyone his due. I have been in public life long enough to know that not every moment in politics is filled with nobility. But I have also been in public life long enough to know that those who surrender to cynicism and deny any nobility to the making of the laws end up doing grave damage to the rule of law—and to justice. If we don’t believe that what we are doing here can rise above the brokering of raw interests—if we do not believe that politics and the making of the law can contribute to the ennobling of American democracy—then we have no moral claim to a seat in the Congress of the United States.
It was a touching confession of political faith, and Henry’s conclusion was met with applause and cheers. Even such sworn partisan foes as the ranking minority member, John Conyers, and the ultra-pro-choice Patricia Schroeder were moved and leaned across to shake the new chairman’s hand. (Chuck Schumer, if memory serves, continued to eat a jelly doughnut while chatting on the dais with his friend Howard Berman of California.)
In less than four years’ time, of course, chairing the Judiciary Committee got Henry embroiled in the impeachment inquiry against President Clinton. Hyde was a model of fairness throughout, as even a Clinton defender like Barney Frank acknowledged. His own falls from grace, decades in the past, were dredged up by reporters, aided and abetted (I am convinced) by unscrupulous Clintonistas, all of whom somehow imagined that the impeachment inquiry was about extracurricular sex. Henry was hurt, badly, and even talked of resigning. I remember telling him that no two people I had ever met had been more married than he and Jeanne (who had died in 1992), and that he owed it both to her forgiveness and his duty to press ahead. Which he did, in the conviction that President Clinton had put the Congress and the country in an impossible position. How could the nation have as its highest law-enforcement official a man guilty of a crime—perjury—for which more than a hundred other men and women were serving time in federal prisons?
When the House managers solemnly carried the Articles of Impeachment across the Capitol to the Senate, Henry Hyde saw in Trent Lott’s eyes (as he told me later that night) that “we’re not going to make it; Trent won’t fight.” Rather than let the trial of the president descend into farce, Henry tried heroically, through the force of argument and rhetoric, to keep the country focused on the nobility of the rule of law, as he did in opening the Senate trial for the House managers:
Every senator in this chamber has taken an oath to do impartial justice under the Constitution. The president of the United States took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in his testimony before the grand jury, just as he had, on two occasions, sworn a solemn oath to “faithfully execute the laws of the United States.”
The case before you, Senators, is about the taking of oaths: the president’s oaths, and your own oaths. That is why your judgment must rise above politics, above partisanship, above polling data. This case is a test of whether what the Founding Fathers described as “sacred honor” still has meaning in these United States: two hundred twenty-two years after those words—sacred honor—were inscribed in our national charter of freedom. . . .
In recent months, it has often been asked—it has too often been asked—so what? What is the harm done by this lying, by this perjury? The answer would have been clear to those who once pledged their sacred honor to the cause of liberty. The answer would have been clear to those who crafted the world’s most enduring constitution. And the answer should be clear to us, the heirs of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.
No greater harm can be done than breaking the covenant of trust between the president and the people; among the three branches of our government; and between the country and the world. For to break that covenant of trust is to dissolve the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice. And to break the covenant of trust by violating one’s oath is to do grave damage to the rule of law among us.
The Senate acquitted the president, but students of American history will read Henry Hyde’s remarks during the impeachment inquiry and trial for decades after President Clinton’s memoir (with its bitter criticisms of Hyde) is pulped.
Late in the Reagan years, House Speaker Jim Wright (of all people) asked Henry to speak at a luncheon Wright was hosting for newly elected members of Congress. Henry graciously congratulated the neophyte solons, cracked a few jokes, and then got very serious. “You are basking in the glow of victory,” he told them, “and that is entirely understandable. But permit me to suggest, on the basis of long experience, that if you don’t know what you’re prepared to lose your seat for, you’re going to do a lot of damage up here. You have to know what you’re willing to lose everything for if you’re going to be the kind of member of Congress this country needs.” That was Henry Hyde. And even his most bitter enemies knew that he spoke the truth.
Once, addressing the National Right to Life Convention, Henry reminded the ground troops of the pro-life movement that they were not “playing to the gallery, but to the angels, and to Him who made the angels.” Last November 29, I imagined the angels giving him a rousing Chicago-style welcome. So, I expect, did today’s holy innocents, the unborn, whose cause he led for decades with wisdom, wit, and effect. It seems too much to ask that we’ll ever see his like again. How blessed we were, as a nation under God and under the rule of law, to have had his services for so long.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His most recent book is Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism (Doubleday).