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Hyde Leaves Complex Legislative Legacy


Former Congressman Henry Hyde died today at the age of 83. Hyde was a Republican from Illinois. He retired from the House last year. And he may be most remembered for his unyielding anti-abortion views and his key role in the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, Hyde's legislative legacy is far less doctrinaire.

JULIE ROVNER: Henry Hyde was a freshman member of the minority party, when he offered an amendment to ban government funding of abortion in June of 1976. It didn't actually become law until more than a year later, after three separate Supreme Court rulings. But when it did, says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, it changed the entire abortion debate.

Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (Legislative Director, National Right to Life Committee): It forced every member of Congress to take a position on the issue. And it, of course, led to the development then of this question of human life and respect for human life becoming an important issue in our elections, in our political system. And he did that.

ROVNER: One of the House's most skilled orators, Hyde went on to defend the pro-life cause at every turn. As here, during a 1988 debate when he argued successfully to keep the abortion ban intact even in cases of rape or incest.

Mr. HENRY HYDE (Former Republican Representative, Illinois): The law protects the rapists, the Supreme Court had said, you may not impose capital punishment on a rapist. That's cruel and unusual punishment. But you are saying exterminate. Exterminate this innocently inconvenient residual of the rape.

ROVNER: On the other hand, Hyde was also a pragmatic legislator willing to compromise when he had to. For example, just five years later after Bill Clinton was elected president, Hyde himself added a rape and incest exception to the abortion funding ban, when it was either that or lose the funding ban entirely.

More recently, Hyde bucked President Bush and conservative Republicans by keeping a key anti-abortion provision out of a Global AIDS bill.

Paul Zeitz is executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance.

Dr. PAUL ZEITZ (Executive Director, Global AIDS Alliance): And he knew it was a deal breaker for the Democrats. And so he got them to compromise.

ROVNER: Zeitz said Hyde did include provisions in the AIDS bill on abstinence that many AIDS activists opposed. But he says Hyde really was what President Bush calls himself.

Dr. ZEITZ: I would call him a true compassionate, conservative, where he had conservative ideological agenda, but he was willing to advance the United States' role in the world by implementing large-scale initiative to demonstrate our compassion.

ROVNER: Hyde was not scandal-free during his three decades in public office. After he led the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, Hyde was revealed to have had his own extra marital affair, which he brushed off as a, quote, "youthful indiscretion" even though he was in his 40s at the time.

Still, says political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, what set Hyde apart was not just his intellect or his oratorical skills or his legislative acumen, but rather, the whole man.

Mr. JACK PITNEY (Political Scientist, Claremont McKenna College): Henry Hyde, even though he had very strong opinions that a lot of people disagreed with, was not a demagogue, he was not somebody who was going to play to the galleries. Rather, he's going to persuade his colleagues through argument and reason, and for that reason, he's going to be missed.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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