The Hidden Henry Hyde: Arch-Conservative Tried To Derail Clinton Impeachment

Henry Hyde goes to his resting place honored among conservatives as the lead prosecutor in bringing the articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton before the Senate.

Upon news of Hyde's death, editors at the National Review went online to declare:

Hyde's reputation withstood a severe test during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when he led the House in impeaching Bill Clinton but failed to convince the Senate to remove Clinton from office. He was attacked repeatedly and often ruthlessly. His determination to press the case nevertheless led to a meaningful punishment for Clinton (the disgrace of impeachment), as the public wanted and as justice demanded.... History will remember Henry Hyde for precisely what he was: One of the great congressmen of his generation -- or any generation.

Similarly, the Weekly Standard promptly posted a reprint of a 1999 column by the magazine's founder William Kristol:

All honor, then, to Henry Hyde -- the man who, in the concrete pressure of a bitter partisan struggle, has had the courage and capacity to defend the principles of constitutional government and to demonstrate the elements of honorable conduct, standing as an example to future generations.

But, as conservative Paul Harvey tells his radio audience, here's the rest of the story.

Hyde, the courageous hero of impeachment, in fact had cold feet -- freezing cold feet. The "real" story can be found buried on pages 484-7 of Bob Woodward's 1999 book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.

No one, including Woodward's editors at the Washington Post, appears to have noticed this brief but explosive tale, known as the "Four Bobs" story. It was not published in the paper's excerpts and no one wrote a story about it.

What it shows is that Hyde thought impeachment stank and he tried to get it killed before it even reached the House floor.

As Woodward tells it, and as confirmed by Huffington Post, just after the House Judiciary Committee voted for the articles of impeachment on December 12, 1998, Hyde, the chairman, privately asked California Democrat Howard Berman to call him at home later after work.

That evening, Hyde outlined to Berman a complex scenario to substitute censure for impeachment: "You've got to go to Bob Strauss" a wheeler-dealer Texas Democrat with bipartisan contacts, Hyde said. Strauss, in turn, was to go to former Republican House leader Bob Michel and former Senate majority leader Bob Dole. "Then they can go to Bob Livingston [who was in line to become House Speaker] and say, 'We've got to have a censure option for the good of the party.' And then Livingston will visit with me and I won't put up much of a fight."

Hyde was adamant that his role in the scheme remain secret. "My fingerprints can never be on this....I have to be against censure or they [his constituents] will kill me." Hyde may have had additional motivation: his extramarital affair in the 1960s had been disclosed three months earlier when Hyde first began publicly pushing for Clinton's impeachment. In 1965, Hyde, as a 41-year-old state legislator and the father of four sons, began an affair with 29-year-old Cherie Snodgrass, who was herself married with a son and two daughters. Their relationship lasted until at least 1969. The Snodgrasses divorced because of the affair.

The four Bobs' plan collapsed when Bob Livingston was forced by his own sex scandal to resign from the House.

If Hyde and Berman had been able to pull off the censure scenario, it would have dramatically changed the course of events -- possibly to Clinton's detriment.

The former President emerged from the impeachment proceedings a hero to many, with relatively high favorability ratings. If, instead, Clinton had been swiftly censured, the political damage could well have been severe and long-lasting.

Perhaps, however, the more important aspect of the four Bobs story is that it never became part of the public discourse. Few, if any, politically influential conservative read Woodward's book or Hyde would not have been the honoree at so many Republican gatherings celebrating impeachment. Among reporters, political operatives and activists, none that I have encountered has ever heard of it.

From the narrow perspective of the Washington Post, the paper missed the opportunity to publish what would have been a major story.

From the larger perspective of voters and their elected officials, timely publication of the story - Headline: "Lead Impeachment Prosecutor Believes His Case Rotten" - would probably have stopped impeachment proceedings in their tracks.

In reality, government ground to a halt. For the two months from December 12, when Hyde first spoke to Berman, to February 12, 1999, when the Senate acquitted Clinton, both the Congress and the White House were completely preoccupied with impeachment.