Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The sad, strange case of Denny Hastert

A bent and bowed Denny Hastert, the 73-year-old former speaker of the U.S. House, shuffled through the media gantlet to appear briefly in federal court this afternoon and plead not guilty. It has to be a humiliating experience, seeing a reputation and life's work washed away so late in the game. For that reason alone I'd like to have some sympathy for Hastert.

But it's difficult.

Let's begin by dealing with the partisan political lessons to be learned from this affair: There aren't any.  In fact, if you take partisan joy from this train wreck, you've got a problem. This tragedy tells us nothing about the Republican Party in general, or Republicans in general. It tells us about people in general, about power, and about people in power. It tells us something about the specific individuals involved in this case, not much of it good. And it reminds us that we human beings, like icebergs, hide 90 percent of ourselves below the water line, and what we hide can cause a lot of wreckage.

I'm not a religious person, but I confess to thoughts that what we're seeing in Hastert's case is karma, God's justice, whatever you want to call it -- it's the universe somehow handing out belated justice, and doing so with a cruel twist. As a rationalist, I know that such thoughts are nonsense, that I'm merely trying to impose a pattern on what are utterly random events.

But still ....

We don't know exactly what happened some 30 or 40 years ago back in Yorkville, Illinois, where Hastert had been a longtime teacher and wrestling coach before entering politics. We may never know, and I'm fine with that. Certainly, the court documents filed against him this month don't reveal much. Hastert is charged only with lying to the FBI and using illegal "structured payments" to avoid exposure as he paid $3.5 million to an as-yet-unknown blackmailer.

Based on his behavior, though, it's clear that Hastert himself believes that he had done something extremely shameful back during his teaching and coaching years, something that he was willing to pay a lot of money to keep hidden from public view. Unnamed government sources and a sister of a now-deceased student claim that the "something" involved sexual abuse. With the statute of limitations probably expired by now, Hastert may instead pay the consequences for the alleged coverup of his mistakes, which sets off karmic echoes for several reasons.

Back in the late '90s. you may recall, Hastert had been a strong supporter of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As Hastert framed the case at the time, it wasn't so much about morality, although that too was an issue. It was about the coverup, the lies, the obstruction.

“The president lied under oath, obstructed justice, and abused the powers of his office in an attempt to cover up his wrongdoing,” Hastert said in comments on the House floor at the time, explaining that he had to listen to his conscience, which allowed him no choice but to vote in favor of impeachment. You wonder what else that conscience might have been saying.

Not long after that, in 1999, Hastert rose to the speaker's podium after the resignation of Newt Gingrich, another impeachment advocate, who was also later discovered to have been carrying on a longtime affair with a House employee. U.S. Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana was to have replaced Gingrich initially, until discovery of his own affair forced him to step aside as speaker-elect. Livingston's House seat was then filled by David Vitter, who several years later admitted to affairs with prostitutes.**

And eight years after becoming speaker, Hastert brought about his own downfall by failing to intervene to protect House pages from sexual advances by U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, an act that the House Ethics Committee described as "willful ignorance" on Hastert's part.  That failing too looks a little more serious with the benefit of hindsight.

So yes, it is a tale thick with hypocrisy. You're left with a sense of sadness at the whole thing, but as I noted, also a sense that Hastert may have earned whatever is coming to him. We'll see.

On a final note, it's tough to recount such a history with so many players and not address the obvious question: Are politicians really more likely, maybe even MUCH more likely, to engage in sexual misbehavior? I think the answer is yes, although "more likely" does not by any means indict the whole profession.

Part of that susceptibility can be explained by the fact that people drawn to elective politics tend to be gregarious sorts who thirst for the approval of others. That's what drives them, and it can be hard thing to turn on and off. Another part may be simple opportunity. Maybe you learned it in psychology class; maybe you learned it from your own powers of observation. Either way, sexual attraction is in part a function of perceived power and status. High political office confers a degree of attractiveness upon politicians -- mainly of the male variety -- that they otherwise would not have.

That creates a temptation to which some succumb. It creates opportunity that others avidly pursue and leverage. And to their credit, many neither succumb nor pursue. All in all, I'm not sure the basic character of most politicians is that different from those they represent; they're simply put in a different situation, under different rules.

Oh, and their mistakes tend to get a much more public airing.


** Yes, that's a particularly sordid chain of events. But again, names such as Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer, among others, ought to squelch any temptation by liberals to draw false conclusions.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.