Bombshells are hallmarks marking the political career of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
This is ironic. Political bombshells don’t match the unburnished image of the affable, rumpled Illinois Republican. Hastert’s visage is about as far away from the torpedo bay as one can get in politics. Especially when one considers some of Hastert’s contemporaries: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Both were practically combustible.
Yet bombshells define Hastert’s political life.
It started with a political bombshell in December 1998. The event plucked the practically invisible lawmaker from a backwater leadership post and thrust him into the speaker’s suite just days later. Another political bombshell exploded in the fall of 2006 which sealed the end to Hastert’s career as speaker.
And to cap it all, there was Thursday’s stunning federal indictment of the longest-serving Republican House speaker.
Although Hastert is still a presence on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist, few thought he’d explode onto the front pages like this. Hastert appears shy. Soft-spoken. Even sheepish. Upon seizing the gavel in 1999, he often described himself as more of a “listener” than a “speaker.” Before this is all over, Hastert could very well score more press now than he ever did when he occupied the speaker’s chair.
That’s what makes the indictment so staggering. Allegations worthy of FIFA. A federal grand jury contends Hastert lied to the FBI and skirted federal transaction rules for cash withdrawals – purportedly to obfuscate $3.5 million in hush money to “Individual A.” The indictment indicates that Hastert agreed to fork over the monumental sum “to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.”
As though that isn’t a bombshell enough …
The indictment continues that “Individual A has been a resident of Yorkville, Illinois and has known defendant John Dennis Hastert most of Individual A’s Life.” And the very first words of the indictment don’t focus on Hastert’s time as Speaker or as a Congressman. No. The indictment cryptically starts with the declaration that “from approximately 1965 to 1981, defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT was a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois.”
Speculation on Capitol Hill and in Illinois is utterly rampant about why prosecutors led with Hastert’s past as a coach and teacher as they try to decode a meaning.
That passage could prove to be the biggest bombshell yet.
How didn’t this come out before instead of eight-and-a-half-years since Hastert left the speakership? Consider how much opposition research Democrats and political opponents conducted into Hastert? That’s stunning when one considers that Hastert presided over a House riddled by ethics and scandal. Criminal charges against DeLay who resigned, was convicted and then cleared. Charges involving some of DeLay’s aides: The conviction of former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who got caught in the web of superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and did time, the conviction of former Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., on corruption charges and the same for former Rep. Bill Jefferson D-La.
To be clear, a court hasn’t yet tried Hastert. He hasn’t entered a plea nor offered a formal statement about the matter. But bombshells like these serve as temporal markers to Hastert’s career.
The first bombshell was a doozy. Republicans nearly lost control of the House in the midterm elections of 1998. They overplayed their hand impeaching President Clinton in connection with his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich was already smarting from a government shutdown standoff with Clinton in 1995 and 1996 and never recovered. The GOP showed Gingrich the door after the midterms. In a November 1998, conclave, House Republicans tapped then-Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., to succeed Gingrich as speaker when the new Congress convened in January.
But there was a problem.
Congressional Republicans forged ahead with plans to impeach Clinton. They voted on the articles in a rare Saturday session just days before Christmas. In another turn of events, the U.S. began pummeling Iraq with warheads as punishment for Baghdad defiantly violating internationally-imposed no-fly zones following the Gulf War. Then came the bombshell: even as the House voted to impeach Clinton for his misdeeds, word emerged that Livingston had been involved in an extra-marital affair of his own. In an emotional scene, the Louisiana Republican called on the president to resign – and then promised to step down himself. Livingston said he would not be a candidate for speaker in January.
Republicans scrambled. They fretted about promoting the volatile DeLay to speaker. After hours of political intrigue and backchannel huddles, GOPers unveiled Chief Deputy Whip Dennis Hastert as their speaker-designate for the new Congress in January.
It was the equivalent of hypothetically promoting current Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., to the speaker’s post.
The second bombshell came right before the midterm elections in the fall of 2006. Republicans were already on the ropes and in danger of losing control of the House. Then an explosion. Then-Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., resigned after it became known that he sent inappropriate text messages to teenage, male, House pages. In fact, one could trace the final implosion of the GOP majority to the final day of the congressional session before the election. During a round-the-clock session of Congress, the situation spiraled out of control, impaling Republicans.
Hastert and some members of his team caught flak for their management of the page scandal. The Illinois Republican didn’t help his case when he appeared at a news conference at his home in Batavia, Ill., a few days after the Foley detonation.
“Could we have done it better? Could the Page Board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes. But at that time, what we knew and what we acted upon was what we had,” said Hastert.
Democrats pounced. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was already crowing about the litany of ethics lapses impairing Republicans. Foley just contributed to the narrative. Pelosi christened it a “culture of corruption.”
Reporters peppered Hastert with questions about whether he was fit to lead the party should the GOP retain the majority.
“Ultimately any time that a person has to, as a leader, be on the hot seat and he is a detriment to the party, there ought to be a change. I became speaker in a situation like that,” said Hastert at the time. “I don’t think that’s the case. I said I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Hastert then proceeded to talk about tax cuts, spending reductions and fighting terrorism.
“We have a good story to tell,” said Hastert.
Democrats gained 31 seats, dispatched the GOP to the minority, finished off Hastert’s speakership and anointed Pelosi as his successor.
And now there is this bombshell. Guilty or innocent, this bombshell will serve as a bookend to Hastert’s career. Just like the one which propelled him to the speakership in 1999.
There weren’t a lot of bombshells back when Hastert taught school and coached wrestling in Yorkville, Ill. In 1976, Hastert’s wrestling squad won the state title. His peers tapped Hastert as Illinois Class A Coach of the Year.
That was before Hastert wound up in politics, matriculating from school teacher to speaker. Hastert never really earned much money teaching and in public service. That came once he left Congress. It could explain why “Individual A” negotiated with Hastert circa 2010 – a point where the Illinois Republican may have developed some resources after leaving Congress.
John Mitchell, who served as President Nixon’s attorney general, is the highest-ranking American official to ever serve time in prison. Mitchell did so after his conviction for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury for his role in Watergate.
That was a bombshell. And so are these charges against Hastert.
But then again, that’s the way it’s always been for him in politics.