The real Henry Hyde scandal

A new book lays out his role in a failed S&L, and it wasn't just a youthful indiscretion.

Topics: Ronald Reagan,

Henry Hyde is a smooth operator. The tall, pear-shaped, 13-term congressman from the wealthy and conservative western suburbs of Chicago often adopts a courtly, even self-effacing manner. With his unctuous voice, he strikes a morally earnest tone in florid speeches that strive for an air of well-reasoned statesmanship. The political press loves him. “One of the most respected and intellectually honest members of the House,” gushed a representative profile in the Almanac of American Politics. Although he typically ranks among the most conservative members of Congress, even liberal Democrats have often avoided criticizing him and praise his occasional maverick votes, such as supporting the assault weapon ban or the family and medical leave act.

This carefully crafted fagade, however, is beginning to show cracks. As the House geared up to impeach President Clinton last fall under Hyde’s leadership, the pious Roman Catholic defender of family values and stern opponent of abortion was embarrassed by Salon’s exposure of his lengthy affair with a much younger woman while he was married and serving in the Illinois Legislature. When Hyde stridently pressed the impeachment case in the Senate, despite overwhelming public sentiment against removing the president, he appeared more right-wing sectarian scold than righteously sententious Solon.

Now two journalists are hoping to widen those cracks. In “Henry Hyde’s Moral Universe: Where More Than Time and Space are Warped” (Common Courage), Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean offer a catalog of Hydean hypocrisy, painting a canvas of Hyde’s record that is broader than most people know — and not one bit flattering. They provide some fascinating new details to expand on Salon’s account, based on the first lengthy interview with Hyde’s lover. They show the man who pleaded that “lying must have consequences” defending lying by his friend and hero from the Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North, even when it involved North’s deceiving Congress and the American people about illegal executive branch actions. The fervent defender of “the rule of law” when it came to Clintonian evasions about sex was willing to take the stand to defend lawbreaking by another Hyde hero, extremist anti-abortion leader Joseph Scheidler.



This is not a full-fledged biography, but vigorous political pamphleteering from a leftist perspective. Rushed to print in three months (without enough care by the publisher to catch many annoying typos), it includes some new revelations, but it is valuable mainly for pulling together tawdry aspects of Hyde’s record, many of which may be little known even if previously reported.

The most serious charge against Hyde, which Bernstein and Kean ably summarize and bring up to date, concerns his role in the costly failure of an Illinois savings and loan of which Hyde was a member of the board of directors. Hyde’s S&L debacle led to federal investigations and lawsuits, and even the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune last fall called for an investigation of how Hyde managed to avoid any legal or financial consequences for the S&L’s spectacular failure.

The gist of the S&L story is this: In 1981, after stepping down from the House Banking Committee, Hyde went on the board of directors of Clyde Federal Savings and Loan, whose chairman was one of Hyde’s many banking industry political contributors. Congress deregulated the savings and loan industry in 1982, and Clyde began dealing in risky financial options, participating in loans for luxury condos in Texas and buying certificates of deposit from a bank in the Cayman Islands, a financial center notorious for money laundering. Hyde was not only aware of such deals but often made or seconded motions on the board to pursue them. By 1984, when Hyde left the board, it was clear to the directors from reports they received that the institution was failing, but Hyde and others on the board continued to abuse their positions, giving improper financial rewards to insiders and even allowing the institution to overcharge the government on servicing student loans.

In 1990, the party came to an end. The federal government put Clyde into receivership, and ultimately paid out $67 million to cover insured deposits — more than the cost of bailing out Madison Guaranty, the thrift at the heart of Kenneth Starr’s abortive Whitewater investigation. The Resolution Trust Corp. sued Hyde and other directors for $17.2 million in 1993. Four years later, without reaching the stage of full-scale pretrial investigation and taking of depositions, the government settled with the defendants for only $850,000 and made a special settlement exempting Hyde from paying anything.

Hyde, the only member of Congress sued for “gross negligence” in the failure of a savings and loan, was not cleared, as he has claimed. Rather, there’s good reason to believe he used his political clout and refusal to settle as a way to escape payment and give the illusion that he was exonerated. Indeed, the presence of Hyde and two other prominent Republican members of Congress on the boards of Illinois savings and loans may have deterred serious investigation of the strategically important role in the national crisis played by the Illinois thrift industry, which worked in conjunction with the politically powerful industry lobbying group, the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, which was based in Chicago.

Though the lawsuit is now closed, the ethical questions about Hyde’s behavior — including the fundamental conflict of interest of a member of Congress sitting on the board of a federally regulated financial institution — remain open. So should the question of how he was granted such a special deal. Hyde has avoided scrutiny of his role at Clyde. He has rarely agreed to discuss it, and then always tried to portray his involvement as inconsequential. To the end he claimed to be an innocent victim of overzealous prosecutors. But the record on the case, which Bernstein ably pulls together, shows Hyde as a central player and as determined to conceal his role.

Last fall, for instance, the Tribune revealed that a private detective, who said he was working for Hyde, was paid to spy on Tim Anderson, a former bank consultant who has doggedly, at great personal expense, tried to expose the shenanigans in the Illinois savings and loans and insist that Hyde be held responsible for his deeds. Hyde, who had just demanded that Clinton reveal whether Clinton had hired any private investigators to look into people involved in his scandal, at first denied any involvement with the sleuth, Ernie Rizzo, who posed as a TV journalist in order to get information on Anderson. Hyde admitted receiving reports on Anderson’s activities, but said they were provided by a mutual friend whose name he could not recall.

When faced with possible ethics charges for failing to report the gift of these investigative services, Hyde remembered the friend’s name: It was his personal attorney, who claimed to have paid Rizzo $2,000, not the $10,000 that Rizzo indicated would have been his normal fee. When a Chicago radio talk-show host tried to have Rizzo on her program, Rizzo received a call from a politically powerful local attorney who said he was representing Hyde. The attorney told Rizzo to stop talking or he’d “never work again.” Hyde has still not made available a canceled check proving who paid Rizzo and how much, despite repeated requests.

The evidence of Hyde’s central role in the Clyde failure and of his willingness to go to extreme lengths to avoid personal responsibility for his actions has been clear for years. Bernstein and Kean lay it out well. They raise the question: How has Hyde managed to escape a scandal that would have brought down most politicians long ago?

First, many Democrats were implicated in some part of the S&L crisis and simply wanted to keep it under the rug. Also, some reporters and editors probably saw savings and loan stories as too complex or, by the mid-’90s, too far in the past, to keep readers’ attention. More important, I think, many reporters and editors were deterred by the image that Hyde, with help from the media, had concocted, of an honest and honorable politician. Fear of retribution may have discouraged others.

Finally, some Democrats in Congress have seen Hyde as unbeatable politically, no worse than the next Republican likely to come from that district and someone they could at least occasionally deal with. And with the exception of the Government Accountability Project, few liberal organizations have understood how they could use Hyde’s fiduciary failings to weaken one of their leading foes. If liberal Democrats and citizen groups with their own beef against the congressman had listened to Hyde nemesis Tim Anderson, rather than dismissing him as an irritating and overzealous nag, they might have nailed Hyde a long time ago and spared the world both some hypocrisy and some flawed policies.

Bernstein and Kean, respectively the principal and associate hosts/producers of “Flashpoints,” a daily radio news show on the Pacifica Network’s KPFA station in Berkeley, Calif., began developing an interest in Hyde last summer. Bernstein had reported extensively on the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s and had even produced a deck of trading cards about leading S&L swindlers. In the course of his work, Bernstein had run across Anderson, and made mental note of his material about Hyde. “When Henry Hyde surfaced as the moral arbiter of impeachment,” Bernstein said, “I put Anderson on the air to talk about Clyde and the role Hyde may have played. After I got done, my phones went wild.”

When KPFA offered an essay by Anderson and membership in the newly minted “Hyde 100 Club” as a premium for donating to the listener-supported radio station, the response required changing its name to the Hyde 200. Then came Salon’s revelation of Hyde’s moral hypocrisy, which heightened the public’s curiosity about a man best known for the “Hyde amendment” to block federal money to give poor women access to abortion. When news broke last fall about Rizzo’s investigation of Anderson, the authors figured Hyde had more to hide. “That was the inspiration for going further with the book,” Bernstein said. “When Hyde set himself up as moral arbiter in impeachment, he needed to stand up to scrutiny of his own career.”

So Bernstein and Kean combed the Hyde record for signs of hypocrisy, extremism and improprieties. It may come as a surprise, but they dig up even more about Hyde’s long affair with beautician Cherie Snodgrass, now Cherie Hancock, and it makes for some of the book’s best reading. Kean managed to persuade the media-shy Hancock, Hyde’s lover in the 1960s, to agree to lengthy interviews. The story Hancock now tells is different in some details from the description that her former husband, Fred Snodgrass, gave to Salon. More important, it is dramatically at odds with Hyde’s description of the affair as a “youthful indiscretion,” and with his contention that the affair ended when Hancock’s husband confronted Hyde’s wife with news of her husband’s betrayal.

First, Hyde was hardly youthful. He was 45 when the affair ended, and indiscretion hardly describes the long-term relationship Hancock recalls (with significant points confirmed by family and friends). “Cherie Hancock describes an eight-year, intensely romantic and serious relationship with Henry Hyde in which the two were very much in love,” Kean wrote. “‘ I adored him,’ she says. ‘We showered each other with love.’”

Hancock was separated from her husband at the start of the affair in 1961 and divorced two years later. She claims that for the first six years she had no idea Hyde was married, though he had “a reputation as a womanizer,” and was having an affair with his secretary just prior to his relationship with Hancock. She ignored the advice of Hyde’s partner to stay away from him because “he’s trouble.” But for Hancock “it was like coming out of a dungeon into a bright field full of flowers when I met him.” Hyde met Hancock’s family and joined them on vacation trips. He took her to very public events, from bars and restaurants to political rallies and trips to Springfield, the state capital. He called her “my heathen,” because she wasn’t as pious as he was, and at parties would jokingly pray, “Dear God, make me pure, but not now, later.”

And then, six years into their affair, Hancock’s ex-husband, Fred Snodgrass, told Hyde’s wife that she could find Cherie and Hank together at a Springfield hotel. Jeanne Hyde, who is now dead, called the hotel where Hyde had told her he was staying, but he wasn’t even registered there. Hyde eventually arrived at Hancock’s hotel room with the news that his wife and Cherie’s ex-husband had talked. It was the first Hancock knew that he was married. The ride back to Chicago was painful, but Hyde and Hancock were soon back together again as a couple. The affair continued for another two years before a “very serious” — but still private — issue led to their breaking up.

Now 63 and living in Texas, Hancock still speaks fondly of the “Hank” she loved, but she is very bitter about Henry Hyde, the congressman. She’s angry about his “lying to the public” regarding their affair and its duration, the “insult” of calling such a substantial relationship an “indiscretion” and his statement — “for show” — that his marriage remained intact despite the affair. Recalling a side of Hyde that showed “intolerance towards people of a different ilk” and “double standards for men and women,” she said she was “extremely shocked and disgusted” by Hyde’s attempts as a congressman to ban abortions for poor women. “I don’t hate him,” she told Kean. “I hate what he wants to do to the people of the United States. I hate the dark murky side of him where he wants people to live as he sees fit. He’s being so moralistic when he was just the opposite.”

And indeed, it is Hyde’s hypocrisy that draws most of Bernstein and Kean’s ire. They focus on Hyde’s attack on women’s right to an abortion (including support of some of the most militant factions of the anti-abortion movement), in light of his womanizing; his support for the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan era, including lying, in light of his vigorous prosecution of Clinton for much less nationally important lies; and his misrepresentation of his own sexual affair, even as he was trying to oust Clinton for lying about sex.

Hyde has no corner on political hypocrisy, of course, nor does hypocrisy adequately account for his public or private behavior and beliefs. Despite the book’s title, “Henry Hyde’s Moral Universe” does not fully map the congressman’s constellation of values. Although they tried — and failed — to interview Hyde, there is little here that explains what makes the man tick. Bernstein said that he sees Hyde as “a man who loves power and knows how to use it … His history shows he doesn’t really respect the rule of law. He’s a man who really believes he’s above the law.” One doesn’t have to sympathize with Hyde, however, to want to better understand both him and the people who support him.

While Hyde supporters might wince at some of his behavior, some probably would not share Bernstein and Kean’s sense of hypocritical contradiction. Ultimately, Bernstein and Kean see Hyde’s moral universe as “warped” partly because of the views he holds — favoring the death penalty, opposing abortion, supporting the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. They energetically make their case against Hyde’s views, for example, reminding readers of the wave of terror unleashed by the Contras in Nicaragua and raising once again the heated issue of links between the crack epidemic and actions of the Contras, the CIA and, indirectly, Henry Hyde. They brush away Hyde’s claim to be a political moderate and portray him on most issues as a far right-winger, “a genuine bomb thrower in private,” according to Reagan’s National Security Council director, Robert McFarlane, who said Hyde argued for channeling private money through the Nicaraguan Catholic church to support the Contras.

If Hyde had been less slickly misleading about what he believed and who he was, Bernstein and Kean might have found him unbearably right-wing but less offensive. But they also abhor what they see as his phony sanctimony and his willingness to lie and deceive. For example, they argue that Hyde was a key figure in promoting the blatantly false and misleading “Birmingham memo” in 1987 to conceal the involvement of the Contras with drug trafficking. They also have contempt for his contradictions. For example, despite his claim to defend the rule of law and the Constitution and his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Hyde was instrumental in pushing through the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The act greatly limits the ability of people sentenced to death under state law to obtain federal court review of their convictions, thus undermining the right of habeas corpus enshrined in the Constitution. It’s particularly galling because Hyde’s home state has been forced thus far to acknowledge the innocence of 12 men sentenced to die, including one who last fall came within hours of execution.

Hyde’s impeachment role provoked the book, but Bernstein and Kean are not Clinton defenders. It is striking how many of the actions for which they criticize Hyde, such as Internet speech restrictions, permanent implementation of the Hyde amendment and the Effective Death Penalty Act, all came into law because Clinton signed the legislation. From either his left or his right, Clinton often looks like a hypocrite. But Hyde’s contradictions stood out even in such company. “It wasn’t just that he was a corrupt politician,” Bernstein argued, “but a corrupt politician who was going to bring down the president in a sex scandal after a lifetime of affairs. He’s a guy in a huge glass house willing to throw boulders at someone also living in a glass house.”

What should anyone make of this small book’s indictment of Hyde? However politically damaging it may be, it isn’t against the law to be a hypocrite or even to make false statements about an old affair. From a citizen’s standpoint, the most relevant critique focuses on the substance of Hyde’s politics, not his deceptive posturing. From a legal standpoint, the Clyde affair is the most serious charge. All this might have crippled another politician, but Hyde has so far managed to hold the press at bay with a smile and the appearance of thoughtfulness, and his ideological opponents have failed to seriously confront him over the years. The result, as Bernstein and Kean argue, has been not only hypocrisy, but a persistent abuse of power that has led to the loss of lives and freedoms both at home and abroad. That’s more serious than a youthful indiscretion, but sadly, it won’t get the same attention.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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