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Hill Colleagues Mourn Passing of Ex-Rep. Hyde

Former Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), a 16-term staunch conservative who played a key role in some of the most emotional debates of the past three decades and was chairman of two committees, died Thursday morning. He was 83.

Local media reports indicate Hyde had been in poor health since undergoing heart surgery last summer. He is survived by his wife, Judy, who was his longtime chief of staff, and four children from a previous marriage.

A Navy veteran and lawyer, Hyde first ran for Congress in 1962, losing to incumbent Rep. Roman Pucinski (D), who was backed by the powerful Chicago Democratic machine. After dusting himself off, 12 years later Hyde won by a wide margin in a six-way Republican primary in the suburban 6th district.

Hyde narrowly won the general election that November, besting former prosecutor Edward Hanrahan by less than 10,000 votes. Since that 1974 election, Hyde only twice — in 2000 and 2004 — received less than 60 percent of the vote in a general election or a primary contest.

Hyde, who broke with his party on term limits following the GOP’s historic 1994 takeover of Congress, was widely regarded by Republicans and Democrats for his eloquent — and occasionally grandiose — oratory. During a 1995 floor debate, Hyde ridiculed the proposed limits, a cornerstone of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) “Contract with America” and a pledge some current GOP Members have since stepped away from.

A Catholic, Hyde repeated a prayer by St. Augustine, the early Christian mystic, during a 1995 term-limit debate on the House floor, asking God to make him “pure, but not now.”

“I want to tell you how unpleasant it is to take the well in militant opposition to something that is so near and dear to the hearts of so many of my colleagues and Members whom I revere, but I just cannot be an accessory to the dumbing down of democracy,” Hyde said. “And I think that is what this is.”

“Have you ever been in a storm at sea?” Hyde asked. “I have, and I knew real terror until I looked up on the bridge and the old Norwegian skipper, who had been to sea for 45 years, was up there sucking on his pipe … I can tell you that was reassuring.

“The case for term limits is a rejection of professionalism in politics. Career politician is an epithet,” Hyde continued. “Careerism, they say, places too much focus on getting re-elected and not on the public interest. That is a perfect non sequitur. You get re-elected by serving the public interest. Professionals, my friends, will run this government. Only they will not be elected, they will be the faceless, nameless, try-to-get-them-on-the-phone, unaccountable permanent bureaucracy.”

Hyde closed: “I have one piece of advice: Trust the people.”

Following the announcement of his death Thursday, lawmakers called Hyde “one of the last of his breed,” a noble and tough conservative whose dents included acknowledging during then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, which he presided over as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that he had had an extramarital affair decades earlier.

“I have long included Henry Hyde among my heroes, and for the 16 years I served with him in the House, I was honored to call him a mentor, a colleague, and a friend,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “Henry was a student of American history, a constitutional scholar, a thoughtful legislator, and a passionate orator.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the former International Relations Committee chairman “a tireless advocate for liberty and democracy around the world.”

“The people of Illinois and this nation have lost a dedicated public servant,” Hoyer said.

Earlier this month, President Bush awarded Hyde the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Hyde’s key involvement in Clinton’s impeachment made the Chicagoland lawmaker a household name in the fall of 1998. During the thick of the debate considering an impeachment resolution, which would later pass in December of that year, Hyde warned his colleagues to remember to let the facts percolate despite the highly charged political environment.

“This will be an emotional process, a strenuous process, because feelings are high on all sides of this question,” Hyde said after gaveling open the investigation into whether Clinton lied about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “But the difficulties ahead can be surmounted with good will and an honest effort to do what is best for the country. In the first year of the Republic, Thomas Paine wrote: ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.’”

Among social conservatives, perhaps Hyde’s greatest legislative achievement was the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 measure banning federally financed abortions. Although the Supreme Court had legalized abortion just before his first term, Hyde abhorred the procedure and spoke out routinely during his 30-plus years against its practice.

Roughly 10 years ago, as the House debated a ban on late-term abortions, Hyde again took out his Norton Anthology, sprinkling his pleas to outlaw the procedure with Elizabethan rhetoric and Old and New Testament references.

“I suppose Edgar Allen Poe could describe it, but it is startling how the words of the ghost of Hamlet’s father seem to anticipate our debate today,” Hyde said, before rattling off lines from Shakespeare’s famous play.

He closed: “In the name of humanity, let us do so, and in the words of St. Paul, ‘Now is the acceptable time.’”