Henry Hyde and the 2016 Republican race

Yes, it is true that, as a political reporter, you do find yourself liking some people you cover a lot more than you like others. For example, in my 50 years in Washington, of all the House members I have met, the late Henry Hyde – a conservative Illinois Republican probably most widely remembered today for the amendment bearing his name, which has prohibited federal funds from being used to pay for abortions – remains one of my all-time favorites. Hyde was smart, good company and brimming with self-deprecating humor, and he never demonized those who disagreed with him.

Speaking one night at a Washington dinner where more than a few self-important types were present, he confessed: “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.” Not a fan of the trendy, Hyde, a native Chicagoan, disapproved of Californians’ lack of interest in politics. “I once mentioned the majority whip in Los Angeles,” he cracked, “and they thought I was talking about a leather bar in Malibu.”

But it was Hyde’s wit and eloquence in public debate that were so special. On March 29, 1995, I sat in the House press gallery and listened to him almost singlehandedly kill the popular Republican-backed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. “I just cannot be an accessory to the dumbing down of democracy. … America needs leaders. It needs statesmen. It needs giants, and you do not get them out of the phone book. New is always better? What in the world is conservative about that? … Tradition, history, institutional memory – do they not count? … Ignorance is salvageable, but stupid is forever. … Why do you want to drive experience into obscurity?”

But Hyde’s line that carried that debate was this: “When the neurosurgeon has shaved your head and they have made the pencil mark on your skull where they are going to have the incision and he approaches with the electric saw, ask him one question: ‘Are you a careerist?'”

Henry Hyde was serious about his work and the work of Congress, which must deal with urgent national questions of “life and death, war and peace.” He respected serious preparation, study, experience and credentials. But compare Hyde’s values with those in the 2016 Republican presidential contest, where experience in studying, reflecting on or making public policy is considered a liability by many and disqualifying by more than a few.

The most popular Republican candidate, according to every major public poll – who is also the current leader in Iowa, where the presidential primary actually begins – is Ben Carson, who was born into poverty, raised by a single mother and, through hard work and obvious ability, became one of the most respected pediatric neurosurgeons in the country. He is also a best-selling author and a popular public speaker, and he and his wife have established a scholarship fund for disadvantaged children.

There is much to admire in Carson. But his lack of preparation and misinformation about serious public questions are frankly shocking. In the most recent Republican debate, Carson endorsed an undefined U.S.-led military action against the Islamic State group: “I think in order to make them look like losers, we have to destroy their caliphate.” He has no tax or budget plan other than his pledge to eliminate the home mortgage and charitable deductions and cut the taxes of those at the top by nearly two-thirds. He’s opposed to an increase in the minimum wage because “every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases.” That is demonstrably untrue, as is his statement that Adolf Hitler was able to carry out the Holocaust by disarming German citizens.

Henry Hyde was right. America needs leaders, statesmen and giants, and you don’t get them out of the phone book – or, miraculously, just out of the operating room or a “reality” television show.