“What the Olympic Gold Medal is to athletes, what the Congressional Medal of Honor is to the military, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is to the private United States citizen,” said Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Today, President Bush will give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to an indisputably worthy recipient: Henry Hyde, the former Republican congressman from Illinois.
Hyde spent 32 years in the House of Representatives, retiring only last year. 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 wrong. History will remember Henry Hyde for precisely what he was: One of the great congressmen of his generation — or any generation.