Dennis Hastert was such a forgettable Speaker of the House that we had completely forgotten about him, but we have lately been reminded of his existence by all the gleeful news reports about his indictment by a federal grand jury. He’s charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a series of relatively small bank withdrawals, which is not particularly scandalous by Washington standards and raises the question of why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals in the first place, but the inevitable unlawful leaks about the case have claimed the withdrawals were used to hush a sexual relationship with a young male who had been a student of Hastert’s during his days as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, which explains all the gleefulness of the press.
Hastert is a Republican, and a self-proclaimed “traditional family values” Republican with his name on a building at a Christian college at that, so the irony is far too delicious for the press to resist. The hypocrisy of Democrats who rail against income inequality while enriching themselves through government service to the one percentile, or decry the Republican “war on women” while rallying around the enabling wife of a serial sexual harasser, is more easily ignored when there’s a story like this afoot. There are still scores to be settled from the impeachment charges that were filed during Hastert’s speakership against President Bill Clinton after he lied under oath about his heterosexual sex scandals, too, and with Hastert having acquired the job after two Republican predecessors were found to have cheated on their wives there’s yet more ammunition for the old argument that there’s no longer any sense in expecting our leaders to hew to a higher standard of sexual conduct and that we should all just go ahead and do it in the road. Given the facts as they have been established thus far, and their usefulness for a variety of Democratic narratives, we expect the Hastert story should push the Islamic State, Hillary Clinton’s slush fund foundation, the recently shrinking economy, and everything else of greater public importance off the front pages for weeks to come.
Still, there’s no denying it does seem a very tawdry affair. Aside from the decades-old but still-sickening allegations of sexual exploitation of a student, which are bad enough, there’s also the matter of how a former high school teacher turned public servant had enough money on hand to pay the $1.7 million in blackmail that Hastert is alleged to have paid. Much of Hastert’s wealth is said to have come from real estate deals, including properties whose value was increased by laws passed during his speakership, and the rest has come from a lucrative lobbying career commenced shortly after he left Congress. Even those questions about why the government is empowered to ask people nosy questions about relatively small bank withdrawals are answered by the Patriot Act that Hastert helped to enact. If the facts as they have been established thus far prove true, Hastert will richly deserve the ignominy that is currently being heaped on him.
Nor is there much that even a die-hard Republican can muster in his defense. We were surprised to re-learn that Hastert was the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history, but one can liken that to the record-setting yet forgettable reign of Larry Holmes as world heavyweight champion, who remains overshadowed by his flamboyant predecessor Muhammad Ali and memorably thuggish successor Mike Tyson, just as Hastert is less well-remembered than his pugnacious and effective predecessor Newt Gingrich and his “first woman” and downright awful successor Nancy Pelosi. Chosen for his dull personality and happy talk of bipartisanship and presumably scandal-free past, Hastert spent his time in power going along with Clinton and then helping George W. Bush push through that Medicare drug plan and the rest of his big government heresies, and was otherwise so good at avoiding controversy that even such news junkies as ourselves had completely forgotten him.
One might note that a recent rash of underplayed stories about sexual exploitation of students by teachers mostly involve women educators in public schools, and that by up-to-date standards an emphasis on cases such as Hastert’s alleged behavior should be considered heteronormative, and that tawdry tales of lucrative careers in public service are quite bipartisan, with the presumptive Democratic nominee being a prime example, and that Republican presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul is currently being pilloried in the press for opposing repeal of the Patriot Act in defiance of a Democratic president who now likes all of the governmental powers it endows, and that the Patriot Act was intended to target terrorists rather people with other reasons for making relatively small bank withdrawals, and that the presumptive Democratic nominee’s husband has been a frequent flyer on the private jet of a known pedophile, and that everyone isn’t cheating on a spouse and higher standards of conduct should still be expected from public officials regardless of their party affiliation, but it will be of no use. Unless new exculpatory facts unexpectedly emerge, Hastert has handed the Democrats’ media allies an extraordinary gift, and Republicans can only hope that readers will notice the other sickening facts that somehow make it onto the inside pages of your local newspaper.
— Bud Norman