George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Henry J. Hyde, R.I.P.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1986, Henry Hyde’s prostate started acting up, so he spent the holiday in Georgetown University Hospital. My daughters concocted get-well cards of the sort that only eight- and four-year-old girls can make, and we went off to see the Congressman en route to our family festivities in Baltimore. When we opened the door to Henry’s hospital room, we found the great man composed in a way I shall never forget: propped up in bed with tubes coming out of here-and there, smoking a gigantic cigar, watching the Lions play his beloved Bears on TV — and reading a huge biography of the 19th century British parliamentarian and reformer, William Wilberforce.

That was Henry Hyde, who died November 29. We shall not see his like again.

He was the most consequential Catholic legislator of his time, a man who loved the U.S. House of Representatives and who was, in turn, well-loved by its members, Republican and Democrat alike. By all accounts, he was the most brilliant extemporaneous debater in living memory, and while his comments could be sharp, they never drew blood, for Henry was, at heart, a gentle man. He marched to the drummer of his own conscience, whether it was leading the pro-life forces in Congress or breaking with conservative Republican orthodoxy by supporting an assault weapons ban. He led the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, not out of partisan rancor, but because of a deep-set conviction that America could not have, as its chief law enforcement officer, a man who was guilty of a crime — perjury — for which other men were serving time in federal prison.

The night the House managers delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate, Henry called me, late. “We’re not going to make it,” he said. “I saw the look in [Majority Leader] Trent [Lott]’s eyes. He’s not going to fight.” We spoke for at least an hour, and agreed that, if the President was going to be acquitted, it was important to lay down some rhetorical markers so that the whole affair didn’t descend into farce. Thus Henry opened the House case against the President with a meditation on the importance of the rule of law, typically citing examples from sources ancient and modern; it was spoken in solemn sorrow rather than anger, and while it did not sway two-thirds of the Senate, that defense of the majesty of law as the great public barrier against barbarism will remain one of the few honorable moments in a low, tawdry time.

He was a man of rollicking good humor. Over more than twenty years of friendship and collaboration, I can’t remember a conversation with him that didn’t include his telling at least one really good joke. And if joy really is the unmistakable sign of God’s presence, then Henry Hyde, who exhibited a joy in living that few could match, was a man who truly lived in the Presence.

In his office, there was a photo that surprised those visitors who only knew Hyde in his portly phase. It was a photo of Henry, playing for Georgetown, going up against DePaul’s George Mikan, the first of basketball’s great big men. That photo always struck me as a kind of metaphor for Henry’s life as a public man, and especially as the nation’s leading pro-life legislator. Henry was used to going against the odds, against the big battalions. He exulted in the battle because the battle was right. He was a happy warrior who could dish it out, take his licks, and come back to fight another day. He didn’t recognize the received wisdom that certain things couldn’t be done, so he went ahead and did them anyway. When he won, those who lost admired him, and some came to love him. When he lost, he lost well — and refused to abandon the cause.

If the pro-life movement is the great civil rights movement of our time, then Henry J. Hyde was one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. Today’s holy innocents, who welcomed him at his final homecoming on November 29, had no doubt about that.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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