Politics & Policy

Prince Hal

A conservative giant in his 80s.

Congressman Henry Hyde celebrates his birthday today–but instead of merely wishing him a happy 81st, perhaps we ought to add two words: Thank you.

Hyde is nothing less than the most important pro-life legislator of his time. His courtly demeanor, eloquent oratory, powerful convictions have inspired conservatives everywhere.

He was born on April 18, 1924, in Chicago to a family of Irish Catholics. He grew up a Democrat and served in the Navy as a young man. He attended Georgetown, and then earned a law degree from Loyola. By the 1950s, he was voting for GOP presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. He sought election to Congress as a Republican in 1962, but this initial foray into public life resulted in a narrow defeat. Hyde bounced back in 1966 by winning election to the Illinois statehouse. He served there for eight years, and his tenure included a short stint as majority leader. In 1974–a tough year for Republicans still reeling from Watergate–he at last won a seat in the House of Representatives.

A trial lawyer by profession, Hyde gained rapid recognition in Congress for his rhetorical skills. His high-pitched voice possessed an unexpected gravity, and many considered him to be the best debater in the House.

The white-maned man from Illinois was more than a wordsmith, however. During his first term, he offered an amendment to block the federal funding of abortions, which would affect as many as 300,000 abortion procedures annually, mainly for Medicaid recipients. This ban became law in 1978 and was upheld by the Supreme Court three years later. The number of abortions underwritten by federal tax dollars plummeted to just a few thousand per year. Pro-abortion Democrats in Congress and the Clinton administration repeatedly tried to overturn the Hyde Amendment, as it came to be called, but the only major modification occurred in 1993, when an exception was made for rape and incest victims (a life-of-the-mother exception had been in place from the start). This longstanding legislative achievement–combined with his ability to articulate the moral principles behind it–made Hyde a hero to the pro-life movement. Americans who might never have been born are alive today because of Hyde, and most of them don’t even know it.

In the 1980s, Hyde emerged as an important Republican voice on foreign policy, especially in support of President Reagan’s Cold War agenda. He played a crucial role in turning back the nuclear-freeze movement. He was also a tireless supporter of the anti-Communist efforts in Central America and a strong defender of the president during the Iran-Contra controversy.

On occasion, Hyde has departed from what are often regarded as mainstream conservative opinions: He supported the Family and Medical Leave Act (even voting to override the first President Bush’s veto in 1992) as well as a waiting period for handgun purchases. He has spoken against proposals to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning and require term limits. The American Conservative Union gives him a lifetime rating of 84 percent.

By the 1990s, Hyde had become one of those increasingly rare figures in Washington–a congressman respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. Yet he outraged the Left in 1998 for his role in leading the GOP’s prosecution against President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. He presided over heated hearings in the House, which resulted Clinton’s becoming only the second president ever to be impeached. Then, in early 1999, he helped argue the case against Clinton before the Senate, which ultimately refused to remove the president from office.

Through it all, the conservative movement has continued to view Hyde as one of its most distinguished statesmen. When Republicans who opposed term limits made their case in front of conservative audience, there was one question they always loved to pose: “What about Henry Hyde?”

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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