At first glance, the guilty plea entered in federal court this week by disgraced former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., doesn’t explain much. Not much at all.
Yet the very paucity of information may indirectly illuminate so, so much about a dark secret harbored by the longest-serving Republican House speaker in U.S. history.
One must nimbly hopscotch through the federal indictment and Hastert’s plea deal to divine a hint of what prompted the entire state of affairs.
Something forced Hastert to admit to breaking banking laws in an effort to fork over hush money to someone -- presumably cloaking seedy phantasms from long ago.
Consider the indictment:
The first sentence immediately declares that “from approximately 1965 to 1981, defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT was a high school teacher and coach in Yorkville, Illinois.”
This is a bizarre yet revealing opening to a federal indictment. It establishes the time, place and status of Hastert during that period -- long before he entered Congress in 1987.
Then, cryptically, before it even alleges the bank transactions, the indictment cites “Individual A.” It notes that the person in question “has been a resident of Yorkville, Illinois, and has known defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT most of Individual A’s life.”
The indictment continues that Hastert and Individual A met on “multiple” occasions and “discussed past misconduct by (the) defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.”
The indictment eventually states that Hastert “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.”
The motivation for the illegal bank maneuvers is clear: a cover-up.
That may be the easiest component of this story to explain -- even if no one can truly address precisely what was “covered-up.” However, the implication is that Hastert’s “prior misconduct” must have been pretty bad.
In a strange way, the allegation of the cover-up sheds light on something: Hastert’s time and performance when he was thrust into the limelight as speaker of the House.
Hastert never sought the speakership. He toiled on the lower rungs of the House Republican leadership ladder as the chief deputy whip before a fluke thrust him into the speaker’s suite in January 1999.
Republicans were in the middle of impeaching President Clinton over his sexual peccadillos with Monica Lewinsky in 1998.
As a result, the GOP overplayed its political hand and nearly lost control of the House in that year’s midterm elections. Voters often pummel the party of a two-term president in the second round of midterm congressional elections. But in Clinton’s second midterm, Democrats actually gained House seats. In addition, the once-remarkable luster of then-House Speaker Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had long faded. House Republicans showed Gingrich the door. In the fall of that year, the GOP tapped then-Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., to succeed Gingrich.
That was the plan until word broke in December, 1998 that Livingston had engaged in an extra-marital affair. Livingston quickly announced he wouldn’t stand for speaker in January 1999. That decision initiated a wild, eight-hour scramble for a speaker.
The House GOP ignored the usual leadership pecking order to find a replacement for Livingston. Republicans passed over then-Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey and then-Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republicans.
Both were seen as too toxic. In fact, Armey had just barely survived an internal GOP battle to reclaim his slot as the No. 2 House Republican.
By nightfall, Republicans plucked Hastert from relative obscurity to become the next speaker of the House. An accidental speaker, never fully-vetted by Republicans, in their haste to draft a stand-in for Livingston.
It is often said that Hastert was low-key. Tubas bleating in a symphony orchestra don’t hit notes in a key lower than Hastert’s approach to the speakership.
Sure, Hastert was liked and respected in the House. But he was so quiet. Private. He rarely if ever spoke publicly -- let alone fielded questions from the press. He almost never surfaced on the Sunday talk shows.
“I’m more of a listener,” emphasized the speaker.
Hastert was often ensconced in his office for much of his speakership, working the phone and taking meetings. He was scarcely visible in the Capitol, let alone around social Washington. He was involved deeply in policy and running the day-to-day operations of the House and did so from the sanctum of his office.
His beefy build, tousled white mane and rumpled suits belied Washington’s image-conscious, too-slick-by-half approach to governance appropriated many ambitious politicians. Journalists practically ignored the speaker because of his bland demeanor.
And meanwhile, Hastert’s lieutenant, Tom DeLay, was so radioactive he’d break a Geiger counter. The press focused instead on DeLay.
“With me, what you see is what you get,” Hastert said.
Taking a cue from his wrestling days, Hastert’s House colleagues sometimes called him “Coach.” Hastert penned a book titled “Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics.” The tome fit the image of the speaker who shunned the stage.
One can only speculate if that was a conscious decision by Hastert due to dormant ghosts from another era.
Hastert didn’t have any control over the events that got him into the speakership. And he couldn’t tame the circumstances which eventually forced him out in 2006.
The fates are sometimes wry.
Then-Rep. Mark Foley abruptly resigned in September 2006. Word leaked that the Florida Republican sent suggestive text messages to male, high school-aged House pages. The GOP majority in the House was already on the ropes. But the Foley issue consumed Hastert and the fall campaign cycle (again the second midterm of a two-term president).
At the time, then-Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had just become majority leader months before.
Both said they were under the impression that Hastert told Foley to knock it off with the pages. But Foley’s indiscretions ignited a firestorm that engulfed the GOP. Hastert said he couldn’t recall conversations about Foley. The speaker sputtered feeble answers about the scandal as Republican numbers tanked.
Reporters and pundits wondered why Hastert didn’t take on the Foley scandal head-on. After all, the speaker sported the perfect resume to handle such a situation. He was a former high school wrestling coach and history teacher -- an advocate for students. Surely, Hastert would invoke his time back at Yorkville and say it would be a cold day in hell before he would let something bad happen to vulnerable teenagers working in the House of Representatives.
But no such declaration ever came.
Instead, “Coach” stammered to answer questions and looked brittle.
Even if Republicans maintained the majority that fall, it became increasingly evident that Hastert’s colleagues wouldn’t return him to the speaker’s chair in 2007. Hastert decided not to stand for re-election as speaker in the next Congress.
Democrats won 31 seats that autumn and secured the House majority for the first time in 12 years.
And yet, here is the irony. Something ugly resided in Hastert’s past. And the enigmatic Hastert did what most talented politicians do: he crafted a narrative.
It wasn’t the usual flashy, sophisticated aggrandizement that typically dominates Washington. No. Hastert engineered an image that spun 180 degrees in the other direction. Hastert wasn’t on the scene as some lofty statesman, speaking a mile a minute, coiffed locks blowing in the wind. No. Hastert would become virtually unseen. Boring. Dull. And even though he matriculated to the post of House speaker, Hastert cultivated a political personae that was the antithesis of that station.
“I had no inkling whatsoever,” said Boehner in June about Hastert’s troubles. “I was as shocked and dismayed by the reports that I read as anyone else around here.”
Hastert was just a dumpy, avuncular guy they called “Coach.” He taught high school and stumbled into the speakership. And yet this may have been a very erudite, cunning tactic to exude a political veneer. A façade. Camouflage.
One of the more elaborate political illusions in congressional history.