He mocked the sanctimony of all who "sermonized about how terrible lying is."
Granted, lies were told, he said, but it hardly makes sense to "label every untruth and every deception an outrage."
He also condemned the "disconcerting and distasteful whiff of moralism and institutional self-righteousness" that led Congress to conduct hearings on the deceptions coming from the White House and he denounced the result as "a witch hunt."
So said the House Republican who led the defense of the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra hearings, the same Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois who is leading the impeachment inquiry against President Clinton.
In 1987, when President Reagan and his top national security advisors were accused of lying to Congress and the public about their secret arms sales to a terrorist state, it was Hyde who argued forcefully for a more nuanced view of lies and deception. Lying is wrong, he said, but context counts.
While Reagan's aides may have lied, they did so for the larger purpose of fighting communism in Central America, Hyde argued.
"It just seems to me too simplistic [to condemn all lying]," he said in 1987. "In the murkier grayness of the real world, choices must often be made."
Now, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he has espoused a zero-tolerance view of lying. No exceptions can be made for lying to cover up an embarrassing sexual affair, he said.
"For my friends who think perjury, lying and deceit are in some circumstances acceptable and undeserving of punishment, I respectfully disagree," Hyde said Tuesday. "The truth is not trivial. Playing by the rules is not trivial."
'Fighting for the Rule of Law'
Flexibility on matters of principle is nothing new on Capitol Hill, of course. While Democrats in 1987 readily condemned the Reagan administration's "deception and disdain for the law," many Democrats now reject the notion that Clinton's alleged lying deserves a full-scale investigation.
Yet Hyde in particular has bristled at the idea that partisanship is driving his impeachment inquiry.
"We are fighting for the rule of law," Hyde has said. "I think it is our constitutional duty under the law [to pursue impeachment]. I'm frightened for the rule of law and I don't want that torn down or diminished."
The marked contrast between Hyde's stated views in 1987 and today caught the attention of investigators and prosecutors who worked on the Iran-Contra scandal.
"The Henry Hyde of 1987 listened to Oliver North confess to an incredible career of lying to Congress and he excused it," said Charles Tiefer, a deputy counsel to the Democratic members of the special Iran-Contra investigating committee.
"We were dealing with hard-core obstruction of justice, where documents were destroyed and phony chronologies were concocted at meetings in which all the conspirators agreed the goal was to lie. And he condoned that," said Tiefer, now a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School.
San Francisco attorney John Keker, who prosecuted North as an associate independent counsel, said of Hyde's position on Clinton's statements about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky: "It just drips of hypocrisy."
"In 1987," Keker said, "a lot of the Republicans, including Hyde, were quite willing to defend bald-faced lying to Congress." Hyde was always one of the most outspoken defenders of North.
The special Iran-Contra committee conducted several weeks of hearings on the scandal, and Hyde played the role of defense advocate. Rather like Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) in the Clinton hearings, Hyde often used his time to undercut the inquiry.
When Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter was sharply criticized by the Democrats for telling false stories to Congress, for example, Hyde spoke for one hour in his defense.
"I want to supply a little context--a word I have come to love--to this situation," Hyde began. He then read from a history that recounted White House lies and concluded that it had long been "a palace of pragmatism where dishonesty flourished."
And when North came before the committee, Hyde quoted an 1810 letter from Thomas Jefferson that said "a strict adherence to the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen but it is not the highest."
Hyde also argued that the "liberal Democratic Congress" should share the blame for the Iran-Contra fiasco because the Democrats voted to deny American support for the Contras fighting in Nicaragua.
"Why did you have to lie to Congress?" he said, addressing North. "Well, it's very simple when you have a covert action . . . that is a controversial one. You cannot get the consensus that's necessary. And there's gridlock. Nothing will happen."
In his separate statement dissenting from the committee's report on the Iran-Contra affair, Hyde said that fighting communism was the paramount issue.
"To be simple, accurate and blunt," he wrote, "there are members of the House and Senate who do not believe that communism in Central America is a grave threat . . . that requires an active and vigorous response from the United States. . . . The executive [branch] has done some very stupid things in this affair," he continued. But "in the murkier grayness of the real world, choices must be made, not between relative goods but between bad and worse."
In 1989, North went on trial for making false statements to Congress and to investigators. Prosecutors said they were surprised to see Hyde in the courtroom as a supporter of the defendant.
Hyde Jumps Up to Congratulate North
The jury convicted North on three counts and acquitted him on nine others. On the day of his sentencing, Hyde was there.
"Hyde was seated next to me in the front row and jumped up to shake North's hand," said St. John's University law professor John Q. Barrett, then an assistant independent counsel. "It seemed a little out of place for a member of Congress to be there congratulating a defendant."
North received a fine and a suspended sentence. Two years later, his convictions were overturned on appeal.
Throughout the 1987 hearings, Hyde made clear his personal feelings for the administration officials who had come under a microscope.
"It is an emotional and gut-wrenching experience to go through these hearings and to see good people who have made errors in judgment have to sit here and go through the tortures of the damned," he told Poindexter.
In 1992, Hyde welcomed President Bush's pardon of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who had been indicted on several counts, including lying before a grand jury.
"I'm glad the president had the chutzpah to do it," Hyde said in a TV interview. "The prosecution of Weinberger was political in nature, an effort to get at Ronald Reagan. I just wish [us] out of this mess, this six years and this $30-40 million that has been spent [by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh]. It's endless and it is a bottomless pit for money, with no accountability."
To be sure, there are important differences between the Iran-Contra scandal of 1987 and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal of 1998.
For one, Reagan was not accused of criminal wrongdoing.
When reports of the arms sales first became public in November 1986, Reagan went before television cameras to say that "we had nothing to do with" the arms sales. He branded the news stories as "utterly false." Later, he conceded that the stories were essentially correct and that "mistakes were made" by his administration.
In an interview, Walsh said that he did not seriously consider criminal charges against Reagan, although the misdeeds could have been considered impeachable offenses.
"Reagan approved the general idea [for the arms sales], but we couldn't prove the details," Walsh said. "And I had to assume his lack of memory was innocent. And Reagan's actions didn't have a villainous quality. He basically did it out of the conviction it was the right thing to do. He was just bullheaded."
Nonetheless, the Arms Export Control Act required Congress to be notified of sales of weapons, and a law passed by Congress prohibited U.S. support "directly or indirectly" for the Contras.
Walsh said that Congress could have brought articles of impeachment charging Reagan with failing in his duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He "had deliberately defied" the will of Congress, Walsh said.
Also unlike the accusations against Clinton, Reagan's aides were not charged with lying under oath.
In 1985 and 1986, North and Poindexter, as well as Robert McFarlane, Reagan's national security advisor, lied to members of Congress and denied verbally and in writing that they were raising money for the Contras. Their statements were not taken under oath, however, and thus could not form the basis for criminal perjury charges.
North, Poindexter Granted Immunity
When Congress began its hearings in 1987, North and Poindexter refused to testify under oath but were granted immunity so that their words could not be used against them. North then freely admitted that his earlier statements had been "false . . . , misleading [and] evasive."
In those days, the Democrats solemnly invoked the rule of law.
"We must never allow the end to justify the means where the law is concerned," Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) told North. Others invoked the Constitution, whose 200th birthday was celebrated that summer.
Irked by what he saw as hypocrisy, Hyde countered that he had "a little more nuanced" view than "my good friend, Sen. Mitchell."
"Our Constitution was fashioned in secrecy," he said, and no one complained then. And Congress passes many laws that it does not apply to itself, he said.
He also bristled at the highly public hearings in 1987. They are just "throwing raw meat to the Reagan-haters that abound inside the Beltway."
When the hearings ended, the Democratic majority put out a thick report detailing the affair and condemning the "pervasive dishonesty" and "disdain for the law" shown by the Reagan administration.
Hyde and seven other Republicans filed a dissent.
"The president himself has already taken the hard step of acknowledging his mistakes and reacting precisely to correct what went wrong," they said. "There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the 'rule of law,' no grand conspiracy and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up."
The signers included Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, a current member of the Judiciary Committee.
Hyde issued his own summary of the inquiry. "It started out as a witch hunt, it proceeded as a witch hunt and the final report showed it was indeed a witch hunt."
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HYDE IN 1987
"All of us at some time confront conflicts between rights and duties, between choices that are evil and less evil, and one hardly exhausts moral imagination by labeling every untruth and every deception an outrage."
--Rep. Henry J. Hyde's minority statement in the 1987 congressional report on the Iran-Contra affair, arguing that Oliver L. North and other Reagan administration officials should not be punished for lying to Congress.
"Lying poisons justice. If we are to defend justice and the rule of law, lying must have consequences."
--Hyde's statement of Dec. 1, 1998, defending the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.