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A Gadfly in the House

Amid all the pulse takers and poll watchers in Congress, Rep. Henry Hyde, who died this morning, was more interested in being right than in being popular.

This article was originally published in the March 9, 1992 issue of Christianity Today.

The walls of U.S. Representative Henry Hyde's outer office sport all the trappings of democracy and reveal much about this 67-year-old veteran of conservative politics. Visiting constituents can look to their left in Room 2262 of the Rayburn Building just south of the Capitol and see a giant map of the Illinois Sixth Congressional District, which extends from Chicago's O'Hare Airport south and westward past Wheaton College. They can stare ahead at two gargantuan blowups of thank-you notes to Hyde from kindergarten classes to which he sent flags. They can look to the right and see a large photograph of the Capitol, with the words of Alexander Hamilton, "Here, Sir, the people govern."

It is not clear, however, whether Hamilton said those words proudly or sarcastically. (He was not overly fond of what "the people" tended to decide.) A look at Henry Hyde's inner office also suggests more ambivalence than first meets the eye. His two Illinois-obligatory busts of Abraham Lincoln are outnumbered by three statuettes of Don Quixote, whose impossible dreams were not of, by, and for the people. Standard photos of Hyde handshakes with smiling Presidents are overshadowed by a large portrait of a weary George Washington at Valley Forge: "His force of character kept 11,000 men together during a terrible winter," Hyde says.

The inner office also displays photos of Douglas MacArthur, and of Oliver North testifying at the Iran-Contra hearings. Hyde was a determined defender of Ronald Reagan at the hearings, and his office walls have many photos of "the best" President of recent decades. Hyde's office also has room for the two bulldog bookends of twentieth-century British politics, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and a portrait of Thomas More, the sixteenth-century English lord chancellor. Catholic attorneys such as Hyde often hang a print of that great Holbein painting because More is considered the patron saint of lawyers; but Hyde has a bust of More as well: "He gave his life for a principle."

A congressman, Hyde says, "has to decide to be somebody or do something," and the former is, unfortunately, far more prevalent. "Congress is a following institution, a poll-taking, weather-vane kind of enterprise. You will not see an awful lot of profiles in courage," he says.

That might not be so terrible if American society were in such good shape that courage could be a luxury. But, as Hyde notes, "the overturning of the spirituality that undergirded society, and the ascendance of secularism, of materialism, of the denial of spiritual values, seems to be the regnant philosophy today in America."

Hyde is known as an antiabortion crusader, but he generally fights society's ruling ethos not just on one issue but across the board. The leaders of media and academia, he says,

Admire and implement the Enlightenment ethic, the notion that [theological] revelation has nothing to teach us. In their view, the obstacles to a good society are simply ignorance. "If only we could educate everybody," they cry, "not only would racism, sexism, and crime disappear, but we'd have a wonderful life—Utopia itself!" Ask them about sin, and they reply, "Sin? There's no such thing. Society is the cause of evil and crime."' Somehow, it appears, society has "'failed" the rapist, the dope dealer, the mugger, the murderer. Society's to blame, not the individual responsible for his choices.

There have been three great styles of twentieth-century American oratory—northern Irish, southern white, and black evangelical—and all three are disappearing under the pressure of media mavens who teach public figures to speak in clipped sound bites. Hyde's rolling cadences represent an unapologetic throwback to a better class of rhetoric. For example, while lots of conservative politicians like to mention the references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and on the back of a penny, only Hyde issues the challenge: "A nation 'under God' means a nation under God's judgment, constantly reminded by our smallest coin that the true measure of ourselves comes from beyond ourselves."

Hyde's office walls display photographs of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, but he also has words of praise for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and sentences of scorn for those who decry the Religious Right: "There is a repressive fundamentalism extant in our country today, but it's not of the religious variety. It is the secular fundamentalism that the courts, the ACLU, People for the American Way, and many of our law schools are teaching."

Hyde is relaxed as he rocks softly in his office chair, but there is an edge to his voice as he talks about colleagues who roll over under media pressure: "People want to do what's right, but unfortunately they would rather be perceived as doing right than as actually doing what's right. I think they are torn, and perception wins out, because the adoration of the secular press is heady."

Hyde rolls in his right hand a long cigar as he discusses the job of a member of Congress: "You are supposed to be better informed than the average constituent who gets his information from a paragraph or two in the newspaper, or a sound bite on the television at night. You can make people aware of the truth."

Hyde is perhaps best known for his constant enunciation of one unpopular stand—that human life begins at conception. He became a pro-life advocate in 1969 while serving in the Illinois House of Representatives, and during his first term in Congress introduced the Hyde Amendment, which, since 1976, has prohibited the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. Yet, with over 90 percent of media leaders favoring abortion, Hyde acknowledges that many politicians are retreating from antiabortion positions. He is irritated by so-called seamless-garment rating systems that link abortion to other "life issues," such as the death penalty and nuclear deterrence. They are just a "way of protecting the Kennedys and the Moynihans," he says. He also does not care for the merging of birth control and abortion concerns found among some Catholics and fundamentalists: "Abortion is killing an innocent human life. The other is preventing conception of a human life, which I think is morally wrong, but there is a vast distinction."

Hyde is concerned about future leadership for the pro-life cause. He was once square-jawed and lean, but years on the rubber-chicken and chocolate-mousse circuit have softened the lines. He senses a similar aging taking place in the pro-life movement. The future of abortion, he argues, is tied to development of a new generation of pro-life leaders: "Mario Cuomo says, 'There is no consensus,' but it's the job of political leaders to help form a consensus."

Hyde does not seem optimistic as he runs through a list of younger politicians who might have been pro-life leaders but flip-flopped instead: "Thirty pieces of silver don't seem to me to be worth it." Hyde added, "I say this as one ready to condemn myself. I in the last election endorsed some pro-choice people," including Illinois's new conservative, Baptist governor, "but the more I think about it, the less comfortable I am with my decision."

Nevertheless, Hyde still hopes for the conversion of even those who are legalistically pro-choice: "You've got to believe in redemption, you've got to believe in Saul of Tarsus, you have to believe that people will change their minds." Good teaching in churches is vital, he believes: "We need prophets and emissaries of transcendence, rather than people who compromise with the world." A major problem, however, remains "the quality of clergy emerging out of the sixties and seventies."

In Catholic churches, Hyde complains, "You have bishops lobbying for female priests and homosexuals. You have a Catholic press that is a great occasion of sin, a way to lose your soul." Many of the church's clergymen and even some cardinals, Hyde says angrily, "lack moral energy," and "the big Catholic colleges are a great place to lose your faith; you send your kid to Notre Dame, and he comes out an agnostic at best."

After graduating from a Catholic high school in 1942, Hyde went on to receive B.S. and J.D. degrees from Georgetown University and Loyola University School of Law; in those days, he emerged from schooling with a strong faith and a strong body. Now Hyde walks the floor of Congress with burly grace, but almost a half-century ago, during the last half of a 1943 NCAA playoff game, Hyde at 6'3" and 180 pounds ran the floor of a basketball court well enough to hold DePaul great George Mikan to one point.

Hyde has similarly outplayed top-rated liberal politicians year after year, so that even Cokie Roberts of Left-leaning National Public Radio grudgingly admits, "Hyde is one of the smartest men that ever walked."

Nevertheless, the task gets harder each year, and he comments, "You can show the truth to people, you can rub their face in it, but if their will isn't ready to accept it, they're not going to accept it."

In recent redistricting based on the 1990 census, Illinois lost two seats, and the Republican Hyde could have been gerrymandered out of a job by a Democratic legislature. But the respect he has engendered proved greater than the political desire to eject a troublemaker. And Hyde plans to persevere. Each time he talks about abortion on the floor of the House, he implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) hurls a question at his colleagues: "Do you want to continue to deceive yourselves?" In the back of Ted Kennedy's mind, Hyde believes, "way back, hidden away in a closet somewhere, is the realization that he is dead wrong on abortion—dead wrong." The hope of engendering a conversion keeps Hyde soldiering on, even when the pilgrim's political progress of the 1980s seems to be turning into the regress of the 1990s.

Hyde has been married to one woman for 43 years. He has four children, five grandchildren, nine terms in the House, and a bit of disappointment at having to remain the gadfly rather than the seat of power himself. But he carries around quotations in his coat pocket, and pulls out a favorite one— "This is great stuff," he says—about the Illinoisan who suffered many disappointments until lightning struck: Lincoln "hid his bitterness in laughter … and met recurring disaster with whimsicality. … Out of a tragic sense of life he pitied where others blamed [and] endured humanely his little day of chance power."

Marvin Olasky is editor in chief of World , provost of The King's College—New York City, and a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of 20 books includingCompassionate Conservatism and The American Leadership Tradition.

Related Elsewhere:

Henry Hyde died at 3 AM this morning at age 83. The Associated Press, CNN, and others have published obituaries.

Congress has a short biography.

He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5.

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