WASHINGTON — 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.