WASHINGTON – It is said that politics is cyclical. But of late, it really seems as though politics is stuck in a time warp.
Consider news topics emerging from the horizon: Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. The late Washington intern Chandra Levy and her lover, former Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif. A trade bill coming to the floor of the House as opponents repeatedly invoke the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was approved in 1993. The reauthorization of domestic surveillance programs at the National Security Agency and policymakers citing the Patriot Act.
Somebody must be messing with the flux capacitors. Politics has trekked back to the future and there’s not a DeLorean in sight. These days in politics, we’re bending the laws of Newtonian physics and curving space-time.
The Hastert tale could prove to be one of the most-sordid stories in American political history. Here’s the former speaker of the House who could not only become the highest-ranking official to ever serve time - but could also force a polar opposite rewrite of who he really was.
Often called “coach” by his congressional colleagues, that moniker could invoke a much darker image now than anyone could have imagined for the avuncular speaker. Will lawmakers now catch themselves when they invoke the term “The Hastert Rule?”
This could force a reconsideration of how Hastert handled matters when then-Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., abruptly resigned in 2006 after sending sexually-charged messages to male, teenage House pages.
Lawmakers and former aides are racking their brains to see if they remember anything strange from Hastert’s speakership. Perhaps a clue. An odd conversation or reaction. No one on Capitol Hill then or now seems to recall any thread which could have tipped them off to the issues at hand today.
But then again, Hastert became speaker in 1999. He left the post in early 2007 and resigned from Congress later that year. It’s not like all of this happened yesterday.
The closest anyone may have gotten to recalling anything about Hastert appears to be former Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C.
Watt spent more than two decades in Congress but he’s not exactly the first guy who comes to mind when you consider Hastert’s inner-circle. The International Space Station is closer to Hastert’s Capitol Hill orbit than Mel Watt ever thought of being.
After reports emerged that Watt may have known something about Hastert, the former lawmaker released a statement saying that, “Over 15 years ago I heard an unseemly rumor” about the speaker. But Watt absolved himself of knowing anything specific about the Illinois Republican.
“It would not be the first nor last time that I, as a member of Congress, would hear rumors or innuendoes about colleagues,” Watt declared.
If that was the case, all 535 members of both bodies would be in trouble.
Everyone knows what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 but few recall what dominated the news before the terror attacks on American soil. It was the mysterious disappearance and death of government intern Levy.
It cannot be understated how much news coverage the Levy saga commanded. It involved a toxic Washington mix of politics, death, and a congressman’s affair with an intern.
Police finally ruled out Condit as a suspect. But not after the entire Washington press corps tracked the California Democrat for months from his home in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC to the U.S. Capitol. They staked out Condit in the marble corridors of the Capitol, dogged him at obscure meetings of the House Agriculture Committee and pursued him into the Democratic cloakroom just off the House floor.
A jury convicted Ingmar Guandique, an undocumented convict from El Salvador, of killing Levy. He got 60 years. Levy’s mother, Susan Levy, says she’s always harbored doubts about whether Guandique killed her daughter. The government now believes that Guandique’s former cellmate lied to prosecutors about the Levy case. A judge ordered a new trial for Guandique.
Another throwback topic: NAFTA.
The House could vote as early as this week on a framework to handle Obama’s big trade pact with Asia. Trade opponents and those who back labor are pointing back to the passage of NAFTA 22 years ago as justification for voting no.
When trade came up at one of the 1992 presidential debates, then-independent candidate Ross Perot warned that NAFTA would produce “that giant sucking sound” of jobs going overseas. Some lawmakers argue that industrial regions in parts of Michigan and Ohio never recovered from NAFTA. Some describe Obama’s trade plan as “NAFTA on steroids.” Even if the results of NAFTA are mixed, trade opponents say NAFTA is reason enough to oppose the current trade accord.
Finally, there was the recent contretemps over reauthorizing surveillance programs at the NSA. The debate – launched by civil libertarians in the wake of leaks by Edward Snowden and punctuated by efforts by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., helped shift the nation back to the days immediately following Sept. 11. There are arguments that members of Congress “legislated by fear” in constructing the Patriot Act. That law initiated many of the programs which some now find questionable but back then, all lawmakers cared about was security, not necessarily civil liberties.
Nearly 14 years later, many wonder if the surveillance programs are all they’re cracked up to be. Are they fair to members of the public who aren’t suspects? After the Snowden leak, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who chaired the House Judiciary Committee on 9/11 and authored the Patriot Act, questioned whether the NSA uses the law the way he intended. Sensenbrenner was instrumental in brokering the compromise which the House approved a few weeks ago and ultimately got through the Senate earlier this week.
No, the country isn’t where it is after 9/11 but that’s why the tidal gravity lugged the debate over the Patriot Act back in time over the past few weeks.
Think these issues messed with the quantum mechanics of Capitol Hill and American politics the past few weeks? This is nothing.
Wrinkles in political space-time are here to stay as the presidential campaign ramps up. Don’t forget who the frontrunner is for the Democrats. Expect a full re-litigation of the Clinton presidency.
In 1955, Albert Einstein’s close friend and engineer Michele Besso died. Shortly after Besso’s death, Einstein penned a letter to his friend’s family. In the letter, Einstein wrote that “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
To Einstein, the passage of time is relative.
It appears the same is true when it comes to the fabric of political time, too.