A lot has been written about Henry Hyde, and he deserves it. But I haven’t seen sufficient attention devoted to his wonderful sense of humor, his witty repartee on the House floor, and of course his long-standing enjoyment of cigars. I suppose that’s because smokers are now PNG’d throughout the uncivilized Western world, and because there really is no good humor in our politics any more. But Henry loved practical jokes, loved to laugh, never took himself too seriously, and enormously enlightened and enlivened Washington life. I will never forget his boffo moment during the Iran-Contra hearings, when his colleagues were feigning shock, shock, that Oliver North was trying to elude the convoluted restrictions of the “Boland Amendment” in order to help the Contras. Henry lectured him sternly:
“The trouble with you people in the executive branch,” he said (or words to that effect), is that you just don’t know how to do it. Up here in Congress, we know how to do it. If we don’t want to abide by some regulation or another, we just exempt ourselves. Freedom of Information Act? You have to abide, we don’t; we exempted ourselves. Sexual harassment? Exempted. And so forth.”
And then he looked around and said, “Does anybody outside the room know what the Boland Amendment looks like?” And he slapped hundreds of pages on the table. “There! Everybody probably thinks it’s just a sentence or two. Oh, no. It’s more than five hundred pages, small print included.”
There isn’t anyone like that anymore.
We had a family loss recently, too, my 97-year old aunt Pauline, who died in late November in Los Angeles. She, too, came from a bygone era. She was eccentric in her personal and intellectual activities, and was always the life of any family gathering. She was married to my father’s older brother, a very difficult person, and found a way to sweeten his relations with others, including his own children. She joined him in a lifelong passion for Esperanto, she drove Checker automobiles always, and she devoted herself to people in prison. A few years ago she got a Lifetime Achievement Award for her work as founding director of the Jewish Committee for Personal Service, a Gateways’ program that provides counseling and spiritual succor for the incarcerated. She was a skilled attorney, and invariably found ways to help her (pro bono, always) clients. She even found a way to talk frequently to Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin, and despite my many efforts to find out more about him, she would never talk about it.
Somehow the whole issue of women’s liberation never came up in her career; she just went and did it. She had one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered, she knew a hell of a lot about human nature, she had traveled (mostly by steamer, of course) all over the world, and I’m sure she was planning another one even as she passed away.
Henry and Pauline have a lot in common, and a lot to talk about. We’d all benefit from sitting in on those conversations, believe me.