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Mark Shields - Remembering Henry Hyde

There are days when you realize you have the best job in the world. One of those days, for me, was March 29, 1995, when I sat in the House press gallery and heard a Republican congressman, respected on both sides of the aisle, speak in opposition to his party's popular proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress.

I remember still his words to an attentive House: "When the neurosurgeon has shaved your head and made the pencil line across your skull, and he approaches with the electric saw - ask him, won't you, one question: 'Are you a careerist?'"

He continued: "America needs leaders, statesmen and giants - and you don't get them out of the phone book. New is always better? What's conservative about that? ... Tradition, history, institutional memory - don't they count anymore? Ignorance is salvageable, but stupid is forever."

By the time he sat down, the proposed constitutional amendment was toast. Henry Hyde of Illinois had doomed term limits.

Now that remembered eloquence and wit are forever silenced. Henry Hyde died this week, just 11 months into his retirement from the House, where he had served 32 years.

Most widely known for the amendment bearing his name, which prohibited federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, Hyde was known on Capitol Hill as a smart, personable conservative who did not demonize those with whom he disagreed on issues. They were his adversaries, not his enemies. He was self-confident enough to collaborate on legislation with true-blue liberals, including Rep. Henry Waxman of California, with whom he worked to win expansion of Medicaid coverage for more poor women and children.

Henry Hyde was consistent in voting to provide for the children whose births were protected by his law. He was not that mean-spirited type found too often in this city, whose voting records follow the perverse logic that life (and society's responsibility for it) begins at conception and ends at birth.

His humor was a constant. At a dinner, one night, he revealed: "I came here 25 years ago to change the world. Now I just hope to get out of this room tonight with my dignity still intact."

Always a partisan Republican, he told the crowd about the well-heeled Washington liberal socialite who, while walking through Lafayette Park, was accosted by a homeless man who said to her, "Lady, I haven't eaten in three days" - to which the liberal lady responded, "Oh, how I envy your willpower."

Never a fan of the trendy, Hyde, a Chicago native, found Californians uninterested in politics: "I once mentioned the majority whip in Los Angeles," he said, "and they thought I was talking about a leather bar in Malibu."

A high-school basketball star who, as an 18-year-old freshman at Georgetown University, shut down the legendary George Mikan in a championship game, Hyde left school to join the Navy during World War II. By the time he was 21, he was a lieutenant commanding a landing craft in combat with the Japanese in the Philippines.

Whether it was the wartime leadership or just his own personality, he commanded the attention and, usually, the respect of his colleagues. As Ron Elving put it in his book, "Conflict and Compromise, "The day Henry Hyde took the floor of the House to speak for family leave (The Family and Medical Leave Act), the issue was essentially decided." He broke with his party again on gun control, voting with President Clinton to ban assault weapons.

But his words could sting. When many of his fellow Catholics strenuously opposed the Reagan administration's backing of less-than-savory anti-communist forces in Central America, Hyde railed against "liberal clergy, the trendy vicars and the networking nuns."

Without him, the Congress is a less civil and less interesting place. For those of us who knew him, there is a lonely place at the table. He loved the line from Camelot where King Arthur said, "We're all of us tiny drops in a vast ocean, but some of them sparkle." Henry Hyde always sparkled.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.