Whenever official Washington finds itself descending into constitutional crisis, the natural tendency of the capital's opinion elite is to anoint an authority figure as the repository of reason. Believing that a man (and it's always a man) of extraordinary judgment, bipartisan probity and seasoned steadfastness is in charge makes everyone feel better. This fatherly icon is usually someone who has been hanging around
Capitol Hill for decades. Occasionally, the aging official assigned this role is suited to it, as was the case with the late Sen. Sam Ervin, who chaired the Watergate hearings with such countrified aplomb.
But this time, as the House Judiciary Committee considers whether
>and how to initiate an impeachment inquiry, the mantle of respectability has been thrust onto the shoulders of Rep. Henry Hyde, the committee's chairman. Journalists who discuss Hyde as if his first two names were actually "Universally Respected" are deeply invested in promoting this comforting image. That was why Salon's exposure of his longtime affair with a married woman so outraged the Washington establishment. Even more revealing than his ancient adultery was his description of that episode as a "youthful indiscretion."
No doubt Hyde is respected and liked by many of his colleagues. Yet the unfortunate truth about the Illinois Republican is that he is more wise-ass than wise man. And while he may seem reasonable in contrast with the militia man on his committee, Georgia Republican Bob Barr, Hyde is no moderate. The problem is not so much that he was once in love with somebody else's wife, but that his heart has always belonged to the far right. He eagerly forgives the crimes and sins of those who share his politics, but those who do not -- like the president -- should expect no mercy.
Hyde displayed his tolerance for right-wing extremism last April, when he appeared in Chicago's federal courthouse as a character witness for his old friend Joseph Scheidler. As the ringleader of a national network devoted to shutting down abortion clinics with physical force and threats if necessary, Scheidler was the lead defendant in a civil RICO lawsuit brought by the National Organization for Women. In NOW vs. Scheidler, the plaintiffs argued that Scheidler, Operation Rescue's Randall Terry and others had organized a "racketeering conspiracy" over several years to deprive women of the right to choice. The jury upheld NOW's complaint and found Scheidler and his comrades responsible for 120 "criminal predicate" acts of violence.
Before the verdict came in, however, Hyde took the witness stand to vouch for Joe Scheidler. A veteran anti-abortion activist himself, Hyde said he had been Scheidler's friend for at least 25 years. "He is a hero to me," the Judiciary chairman testified. "He has the guts that I wish more of us had." But he later claimed he was unaware of Scheidler's notorious reputation for closing down abortion clinics with physical force.
Asked whether he endorsed Scheidler's "unlawful conduct," Hyde replied, "I would deplore unlawful behavior, especially if it's a good law, a moral law." Before judging Scheidler's lawbreaking, Hyde added, "I would want to talk to him to find out why he is advocating breaking the law." Hyde said his view of his friend's conduct "might" depend "on which law Mr. Scheidler is breaking."
Although the judge frequently admonished him to answer "yes or no" when NOW attorneys cross-examined him, Hyde could barely restrain his sarcasm. He compared abortion clinics to Auschwitz and anti-abortion protesters to the civil rights movement. When a NOW lawyer inquired about a technique for barricading clinic doorways called "lock-and-block," Hyde shot back, "Did they do that at Selma?"
Hyde did agree that he had sworn to uphold the Constitution and the law as enunciated by the Supreme Court. But a few minutes later, when asked, "Mr. Hyde, would you vouch for the character or the integrity of anyone who openly proclaimed that he would not obey the laws of the land?" he answered, "Absolutely. Absolutely. If the law of the land is immoral and condones [killing] unborn children, I think that's heroic." In other words, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee believes that the law must be upheld, except when he feels that the law doesn't meet his definition of morality.
Perhaps Hyde really does feel that "abortuaries" are the same as death camps, although if so it is hard to see why he hasn't mounted the barricades himself. But Joe Scheidler isn't the only rightist miscreant for whom Hyde has sought lenient treatment. Another was his former Republican colleague from Illinois, Rep. Dan Crane, once a leading light of the new right.
In 1983, after a yearlong investigation by the House Ethics Committee, Crane was found to have engaged in an illicit sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl working as a congressional page. When the question of whether the House should expel, censure or merely reprimand Crane reached the floor, Hyde popped up to beg mercy for his friend.
"We sit here not to characterize the crime, the breach, the transgression, because we all know the transgression, which is admitted and it is stipulated as reprehensible." Even so, Hyde pleaded, "In searching our souls for the appropriate punishment, I ask the members to consider this situation in its totality, in its entire context."
Crane deserved mercy, Hyde explained, because he already had suffered enough. "He is embarrassed, he is humiliated, he is disgraced. And it endures; it is not over ... Every shred of dignity will be stripped away from Dan Crane, and it will endure." (Does any of this sound familiar yet?) Hyde concluded movingly, "I suggest to the members that compassion and justice are not antithetical; they are complementary. The Judeo-Christian tradition says hate the sin and love the sinner. We are on record as hating the sin, some more ostentatiously than others. I think it is time to love the sinner."
Bowing to Hyde and others, the House voted to censure Crane rather than expel him.
Fifteen years later, however, we probably shouldn't hold our collective breath waiting for the Judiciary chairman to urge love and understanding for that liberal Democrat sinner in the White House.After all,
Henry Hyde is a moral man, sworn to uphold the law.