Over thirty years ago, I walked on to the floor of the House Representatives on my first day as a congressional page – fidgeting in a new blue suit and trying desperately to hide the fact that I was terrified. I was immediately pushed into a scrum of members and pages running about in a close vote. Nobody really noticed the teenager being shoved around like flotsam and jetsam until I felt a huge hand grab me by the arm and pull me into a member’s seat. I looked up at a tall man in an outrageously bright canary yellow suit and a smile to match. It was Henry Hyde. While I was a democratic page, he had seen me from across the room and ran over to stop me from being ground into chum.
When I heard of Hyde’s death yesterday, I thought about that time sitting with Hyde as he explained what was happening on the floor. For me that was Henry Hyde. He was, to be sure, one of the most powerful and influential politicians of his generation. However, he was also a uniquely decent and compassionate man. The bill on the floor was his bill, but the most important thing for him at that time was to help some fifteen-year-old page on the edge of a panic attack.<
Years later, we would work together on legislation and on the Clinton impeachment. In his final years, I spent months interviewing Hyde for a possible book on his remarkable life. It is easy to memorialize a man like Hyde in a recitation of his historic contributions over 32 years in Congress. He was a bigger than life character in the Judiciary committee, the author of the pro-life Hyde Amendment and countless major pieces of legislation. From his chairmanships of the Judiciary and International Relations Committees, he changed the world in which he lived.
However, Henry Hyde wasn’t bigger than life. He was shaped by life and never forgot its lessons. The true Henry Hyde can only be found back in Illinois where he grew up in the depression, the son of a coin collector in a family that was often short of everything but bad luck.
When they lost their house in the depression, they were forced to live above a tavern on Howard Avenue. They could not afford the one dollar a month tuition to go to St. Margaret Mary Elementary, so he worked at the school to pay it off. In high school, he ignored the taunts of his classmates and worked as their janitor to pay the tuition at St. George.
They could never afford college, so Hyde won a basketball scholarship and went to Georgetown.
It was a life that left Hyde with a deep understanding and sympathy of people with little money or power. The fact is that I never met anyone who knew Hyde and did not like him, even those on the other side of the intense battles of his career. There was something genuine about him that is missing in today’s freeze-dried, robotic politicians. For one thing, he genuinely liked people and liked helping them out.
When he was in the Illinois legislature, a man with a gun barricaded himself in the bathroom near his office. The police were ready to shoot him but Hyde insisted on going in to speak with him. It turned out the man had problems at home. Hyde came out with the man and the gun.
Hyde was one of the last of the “old guard.” He was widely viewed in Congress as someone who valued consensus and played fairly with colleagues. Hyde sought a new direction for his party, away from divisive politics, including his critical role in replacing Next Gingrich as speaker. When Africa was being ravaged by aids and poverty, it was Hyde who pushed through $15 billion in relief.
Of course, there was impeachment. Hyde was personally attacked for an affair that he had 30 years before – suggesting that there was no difference between Bill Clinton and his accusers. Yet, Hyde supported impeachment because Clinton was a perjurer not an adulterer.
The fact is that the affair showed how different these two men were. Unlike Clinton, Hyde never tried to deny the affair and he certainly never lied about it under oath. When he told his wife about the affair, he broke down, filled with shame that continued for the rest of his life. Jeanne forgave him, but he never forgave himself.
While it may seem trite, Hyde truly believed what he said in 2003. He believed that “the Law exists to protect the weak from the strong.”
He had a deep faith in a system that allowed a kid living above a tavern on Howard Street to become one of the most powerful people in the world. But unlike others, he never became bigger than life. He loved life and people too much for that.
For me, Henry Hyde will remain that man in the canary yellow suit who looked into a crowd of powerful politicians in the midst of an important vote and only saw one scared kid who needed rescue. If the measure of a man is the size of his heart, Henry Hyde was the greatest of his generation.
Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.
November 30, 2007