Well-respected Republican would preside over inquiry Clinton among admirers of House judiciary panel Chairman Henry Hyde


WASHINGTON -- On Rep. Henry J. Hyde's wall in his Capitol Hill office are photographs of him with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II -- and Bill Clinton.

"To Mr. Hyde -- with respect," Clinton signed the photo taken in their first encounter in 1993, just before he made his first address to Congress as president.

Nobody, it seems, doesn't respect Henry Hyde.

In his two dozen years representing the bedrock conservative Republican, western suburbs of Chicago in Congress, the silver-haired, golden-tongued lawmaker has alternately frustrated, infuriated and trumped his peers with his ideological ferocity. But he also has earned their respect.

Now, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Hyde has suddenly been thrust into the most visible and difficult role in his political life as he prepares to preside over any impeachment inquiry against Clinton.

And as one of Congress' fiercest champions, he hopes that the wrenching ordeal consuming the nation, as he calls the Clinton scandal, will bring out the best in his colleagues and eventually win more respect for the much-vilified institution that he loves so much.

"If we do it well, the House of Representatives will be enriched and strengthened, and our country will be proud of this institution," he told the House Rules Committee on Thursday. "If we don't do it well, if we fall into partisan bickering, we will disgrace this institution. And we're not about to do that, God willing."

The nonpartisan Almanac of American Politics recently described the 6-foot-3, 74-year-old lawmaker as "one of the most respected and intellectually honorable members," one who "acts from deep belief more than political calculation."

In recent weeks, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed relief that if there has to be a public impeachment inquiry, the best person to lead it is Hyde.

"The president should be grateful that he has someone of his stature leading the inquiry instead of other people -- and I'm not going to name the other people," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican. "Henry is as fair as the day is long."

Rep. Howard L. Berman, a California Democrat who has clashed with Hyde often over the years, said: "He will be independent and fair and put the country's interests even before his party and his ideological interests. I can't think of too many people from either party who would be better to have in this position."

But passing legislation is certainly different from impeaching a president. Hyde has made no secret of his belief that Democrats have unfairly tarnished independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "I have no criticism of Mr. Starr," he said in a recent interview. "He belongs in the pantheon of saints."

Without criticizing Hyde by name, some Democrats nevertheless labeled unfair his claim that Clinton did not need to see the independent counsel's 445-page report before its disclosure because he already knew its contents.

"I reject that and I'm trying not to resent it," said Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the committee's ranking minority member, in debate on the floor of the House before a vote authorizing the report's release.

Throughout his years in Congress, Hyde has played a starring role in promoting the causes of his party.

But he can be fiercely independent, rankling the Republican leadership when he opposed limiting terms for Congress and the repeal of the assault weapons ban.

Even yesterday, Hyde was making no predictions on whether there would be enough evidence to warrant a full impeachment investigation.

"This has been a movable feast," he said. "The situation has changed from hour to hour."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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