Henry Hyde, the former Republican congressman from Illinois, died early Thursday morning. His departure marks the passing of an important voice for American foreign policy and for the human rights of the unborn.
Hyde spent 32 years in the House of Representatives. He made his mark in many areas — as a tough-minded leader on foreign affairs and chairman of the Committee on International Relations, as the head prosecutor in the Clinton impeachment case, and as one of the GOP’s most persuasive debaters.
He will be most remembered for the Hyde Amendment. First passed in 1976, when Hyde was new to Washington, it bans the public funding of abortions though Medicaid. The year before it passed, the federal government had financed 300,000 abortions for low-income women. Afterward, this number dropped essentially to zero — the women either found another way to pay for their abortions or chose life for their unborn children. The National Right to Life Committee has estimated, conservatively, that the Hyde Amendment has prevented at least one million abortions. That’s one million Americans who are alive today because of Henry Hyde.
The Hyde Amendment has proven remarkably durable, undergoing only one important revision. In 1993, Congress added rape and incest exceptions to the life-of-the-mother clause that had been in place from the start. It is without question the most important piece of pro-life legislation ever to pass Congress.
Despite his right-of-center politics — he is one of just a few congressmen to have his own entry in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia — Hyde was popular among both Republicans and Democrats. They understood him as a man of good cheer and firm principle, even when they disagreed with him — as liberals did on many issues, and as some conservatives did when Hyde argued against congressional term limits or supported gun control.
Hyde’s reputation withstood a severe test during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when he led the House in impeaching Bill Clinton but failed to convince the Senate to remove Clinton from office. He was attacked repeatedly and often ruthlessly. His determination to press the case nevertheless led to a meaningful punishment for Clinton (the disgrace of impeachment), as the public wanted and as justice demanded.
During the height of the impeachment controversy, Rep. Maxine Waters, a left-wing Democrat, tried to scold Hyde: “History will not be kind to you.”
She was, mercifully, wrong. History will remember Henry Hyde for precisely what he was: One of the great congressmen of his generation — or any generation.
Earlier this month, Congressman Hyde was honored at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Hyde was recovering from surgery and could not attend the ceremony. With the congressman’s son, Bob, accepting the medal in his place, President Bush said of Hyde: “He used his persuasive powers for noble causes. He stood for a strong and purposeful America — confident in freedom’s advance, and firm in freedom’s defense. He stood for limited, accountable government, and the equality of every person before the law. He was a gallant champion of the weak and forgotten, and a fearless defender of life in all its seasons. Henry Hyde spoke of controversial matters with intellectual honesty and without rancor.”
He’s been gone from Congress for a year and now has left us for eternity. We will miss his voice.