Henry Hyde

There were two political Henry Hydes, and until the second lived his life’s span (1924 – 2007), no historian would have imagined the Clarendon Papers of the mercurial Jacobite (1638 – 1709) being eclipsed in social importance by a Hyde from Chicago. In his Irish Catholic family, Henry Hyde had virtually no political option: To a Democrat, the Republicans were “a bunch of bankers, bloated bondholders and economic royalists.” After combat duty in the Philippines with the Navy in World War II, the Cold War modified his politics and by 1952 he was supporting Eisenhower as deftly as Clarendon had switched royal families, but without the calculation of self-interest.


The Illinois lawyer had Lincolnesque affinities and began to perceive the nation engaged in a cultural war no less vital than the slavery battle. He moved to Congress from his state legislature and eventually chaired the House Judiciary Committee, during which time he was lead House manager for the Clinton impeachment trial for perjury. It was a ticklish business that would have been dismissed as partisan venality, save for the conviction of principles, which he said were “not the ravings of some vast right-wing conspiracy, but a reaffirmation of a set of values that are tarnished and dim these days . . . .” Of more permanent consequence was his Hyde Amendment, which, by prohibiting the federal funding of abortion, has saved countless lives. As emotive as the abortion question was, he considered its moral and constitutional implications with a lawyerly eye. He told me once in a passing comment that President Bush Sr. had been even more supportive than President Reagan, especially in backing up court nominees. Intelligence legislation actually took more of his time as he headed the House International Relations Committee from 2001 to the year of his death. The empirical spirit that never left him bereft of confrontations with more pliable opportunists moved him to co-author health legislation with a Democrat and break party ranks on arms legislation and military maneuvers in Iraq.

Purgatory came prematurely in scandals fomented to crack his moral stature. He was exonerated of “gross negligence” charges related to an alleged of interest as a director of a savings and loan bank. More vicious was the demagoguery that tried to intimidate him during the impeachment trial by exposing an extra-marital affair from 30 years earlier. The public embarrassment was cruel to him and the memory of his wife who had died six years before the details were advertised by the pharisaic hermeneutic of an Internet magazine. By then, Hyde was so venerable among his peers that even political opponents felt sullied by the tawdry politics. Still, interested agents even shadowed him to Mass in Arlington, Virginia where he was a lector. A private eye copied as evidence that he might be a slave of theocracy, an inscription on a statue of St. Thomas More in the church: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” 
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It was hard to imagine that the bulky figure walking on two sticks had played basketball at Georgetown, once guarding George Mikan in a tournament game and helping to take the Hoyas to the 1943 Final Four. We were often on the same platform, and at a meeting of the Jacques Maritain Society in Princeton he critiqued some things I had said on television and had forgotten. Somewhere I still have a video of the father of four children singing to my own mother on her birthday.

Remembering Douglas MacArthur from combat days, he appropriated the general’s cadences: “When I cross the river for the last time, my thoughts will be of the House, the House, the House.” Heart surgery prevented him from receiving in person the Medal of Freedom, and he died three weeks after the president honored “a powerful defender of life, a leading advocate for a strong national defense, and an unwavering voice for liberty, democracy, and free enterprise around the world.” The “true gentleman of the House,” as the president called him, had said during the impeachment days that honor is “the only thing we get to take with us to the grave.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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