Friday, October 6, 2006
The Denny Thing in Retrospect. Some Re-Working of an Earlier Theme on the House.
In 1978 while a vice president of Quaker Oats, I also taught a graduate course in practical politics at Loyola University for Illinois high school teachers who wanted to update their education in public policy. All during the class I watched a big, hearty, 250 lb. plus, ruddy-faced, sandy-haired fellow who had never said a word in class but twisted his spectacles in his hand, shot his eyebrows up and down, slumped in his rumpled suit and listened intensively. When the session was over, he plodded up to me, stuck out a meaty hand and said thanks. Im a history teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville, High. Ive always been interested in politics and you make it sound real interesting. He hesitated. You may remember my Yorkville high wrestling team won all-state two years ago and folks were nice enough to name me Wrestling Coach of the Year. The names Denny Hastert. Im going to Washington for my first trip next week.
I said I associated the name Hastert with White Fence Farm, a delicious country restaurant for chicken.
Its in my family, he said. Once I worked there as a fry cook. But this politics thing fascinates me.
So fascinated with politics was this 36-year-old Wheaton College grad that after he took my course, he signed on as a part-time intern in his state senators district office. Then began a strange pattern. People on the ladder a rung ahead of Denny obliged him, either by dying or quitting. Denny ran for state Representative from his hometown. He didnt speak very well and finished a dismal third. Then the nominee died before the election. The local Republican committee had to name a nominee. They chose Hastert. Why? He could really schmooze. Something about that big fat guy with a thousand sports stories charmed t he committee. And so, in that heavily Republican Fox River district, Denny Hastert got elected state Rep easily.
Then a few years later, in election year 1986, his Republican Congressman had a debilitating stroke. His widow working with the GOP district committee stalled so that, although incapacitated, he won the nomination. Then he died. The committee had to appoint a nominee. By then Denny Hastert was known for his folksy ways. He got appointed nominee. But in the general election, he had to face a very popular woman Democrat: a coroner. She was witty, smarter than Denny, more articulate. The race was close. But Dennys side (not him personally) spread some unkind stories about her marriage. Shes bitter to this day but he squeezed through 52% to 48%. She still tells me, Just think. I had it all wrapped up until they smeared me. Whether shes right or not, nobody cares today. She toils in an obscure secretary of state bureaucratic job.
That was how my old summer student went to Congress. Now hes the 51st Speaker of the House of Representativesnext in line for the presidency of the United States after Dick Cheney. Is this a great country or what?
When Denny went to Washington, left his wife at home (she was a phys ed teacher). He was straight, no running around, took an apartment with another Congressman whose wife was also home. In the House, Denny was no intellectual ball of fire. No orator. No strategist. No visionary. But he did what he was asked to do. He charmed Bob Michel, the Republican minority leader from Peoria with his sports stories. He took assignments from Michel very seriously. He got on Commerce a power committee. When Illinois Ed Madigan ran for Republican whip, Denny was a supporter, got to know Tom DeLay, Madigans campaign manager. But an upstart from Georgia named Newt Gingrich beat Madigan by two votes. Madigan left to be secretary of agriculture and Denny intensified his friendship with DeLay. He ran DeLays campaign for whip. DeLay won, named Denny his deputy.
Michel who was a smooth practitioner retired; Gingrich who was an idea man became leader; Dick Armey, another idea man, became majority leader. DeLay, the Velvet Hammer, was the enforcer. And Denny was the same old Denny: the nice guy, the schmoozer, patching up feelings after DeLay hurt them.
He and DeLay shared the same office and the same staff. DeLay talked all day to anybody who would listen. He could get on peoples nerves. But Denny Hastert, a big bear of a man with minimal ego, just listened and schmoozed and looked like he was going to speakbut didnt. Like Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There whatever he said was taken to be profound. Denny would say: I think thisll be a good day. Everybody including reporters would nod sagely and ponder: what does Denny mean? Good day for State, Commerce and Justice appropriations committee to pass out its bill? Good day for the joint House-Senate conference committee on health to pass out Medical Savings Accounts? Denny wouldnt say. It got around that Denny was deep. Not really.
People started to get riled with Newt. There was a plot to dump him. Armey was part of it but when news of it came out, he denied it. That finished him with his troops. Denny wasnt part of it. But Armey spun off, decided to go to the private sector. Dennys boss DeLay was next in line for majority leader.
One morning in 1998 he was on his way to the office he shared with DeLay when he stopped to hear a reporters question. Bang-bang. Shots came from his and DeLays office. A nut invaded it, shot a policeman friend of DeLay dead. If Denny hadnt stopped he would have been in direct line of fire. But what it did to Dennys boss, DeLay was serious.
DeLay took the shooting as a kind of omen. He wept on TV and couldnt continue. He went to the cops funeral and was never quite the same after that experience. He tensed up, talked even faster and more incessantly. He got paranoid. He felt he had to work harder before some other bad thing happened. The Velvet Hammer turned super-workaholic. He wanted to add Republicans quickly: too quickly. He rammed a gerrymandered map through the Texas legislature, raised money for Republican congressional candidates, raved, shouted. The only fun he had was golf. He loved St. Andrews in Scotland. A lot of lobbyists would chip in to pay his way, cutting corners. Jack Abramoff the lobbyist was supposed to work it so the money was paid through a non-profit. Not exactly. Trouble was simmering.
Denny Hastert? He never changed; just leaned back in his chair and schmoozed with people. He kept up his funny way of communicating by using no words the way he did in my class: twisting his glasses, raising his eyebrows up and down, listening to others, moving his lips in and out like he was going to speakbut then didnt. Hed get up, walk over to the guy who was speaking, throw a thick arm around him and looked like he was about to say something profound. But he never would. No matter: Thats how he communicated. People studied him to see what his movement meant.
Even today, everybody from House interns to committee chairmen to the President thinks they know what he means. But they dont. Theyd say: at least Denny listens. But not all the time; sometimes he nods but hes far away. There were no ideas coming from him. But ideas werent his department. Ideas by the bucket-full came from Gingrich, a history Ph.D, on tactics from DeLay; elegant rhetoric from Bob Livingstone, the patrician of the House. Denny just kept on listening and fidgeting, twirling his glasses.
Then, all sorts of terrible things happened to the Republican House. Speaker Newt Gingrich got battered badly by his own irascible self. As Henry Hyde always said, Gingrich is half genius and half nuts. The nut side started to dominate. He tried to sell books, sell tapes of his part-time college courses, got zinged by the ethics committee. He got so busy with his national TV commitments, he didnt listen to his troops. They growled that he talked ideas too much with no follow-through. And then he ran around after hours with a young girl on his staff. Which made his wifeherself wife number twomad. Fed up with the pressure from his angry colleagues, tiring of the bad ethics rap, facing a divorce and warming to the chance of making real money on the outside to pay alimony to two women and provide a fancy living for a third, Gingrich said hed resign from the House and told his colleagues to find a successor. The choice was easy.
The next in line for Speaker was the patrician, Bob Livingstone of Louisiana. He was to be the Master of the Game. His ancestor swore in George Washington as president 200 years earlier. He was an encyclopedia of legislation: a detail man, just the antidote for a Newt. But Livingstone had a past with women lobbyists. He jilted one and she said shed talk. He decided he didnt need the publicity and wanted to save his marriage. So he decided to follow Gingrich and quit the House to make some real money on the outside. Now the next choice would be tough.
Who then? Gingrich was getting antsy to get out. There was no logical candidate for Speaker. DeLay was too abrasive. Besides, he acknowledged, he wasnt Speaker material. Hed rather be majority leader so he could punish those out to get him. Very satisfying. What to do? Gingrich was running out of time and Speaker-designates. Then DeLay suggested Denny. And who better than the sonorous old grizzly bear with his eyebrows going up and down, who had no girl friends, no ethics problemsafter all those heavyweights with ethics issues? Also no disturbing ideas. No ideas period. So what? Ideas would come from the White House. Denny could schmooze enough to get them through.
Old Denny said yes. Then he became the candidate of everybody who wanted Gingrich and Livingstone gone. And who hated DeLay. That made a big majority. DeLay rounded up the votes. Denny won. Gingrich hustled out one door, Livingstone out the other door and Denny took the gavel. Everybody thought hed keep on taking orders from DeLay.
And he would havebut. But then DeLay ran into trouble with his monomania about ramming a map through the Texas legislature. That took money, dealing, threats. It took money from lobbyists. For relief from the tension, he went golfing at St. Andrews in Scotland. Lobbyists told him they knew how to pay his bills without violating the House rules. Wrong. Indicted once, DeLay was trapped. So Speaker Denny went to his old boss and said he had to quit. DeLay quit as majority leader; found guilty, hes had to resign from the House while he fights it on appeal. And then, suddenly there was nobody to guide Denny.
The new majority leader, a perpetually sun-tanned Dean Martin type, John Boehner isnt looking out for the Speaker the way DeLay had. With Bush in trouble, no Velvet Hammer, no ideas, no rhetoric, Denny has fallen on evil days. No Armey with ideas on the economy. The Jack Abramoff scandal hit taking with it Randy Cunningham of California. Speaker Denny went to Cunningham and told him he had to quit. Cunningham did, pled guilty of taking more than $2 million in bribes for steering appropriations to a favorite defense contractor. It took Bob Ney of Ohio who allowed his office to be used by Abramoff for Abramoffs clients. Speaker Denny went to Ney and told him he had to quit. Ney did. Now hes due to go away. Gradually, there came to be no ideas, no disciplinarian or intellectual leader in the House.
Excessive spending became the issue in the GOP House. In response, it could be said that 9/11 prompted additional spending programs that were necessary. But there seemed to be nobody defending the record of the House with the bright guys gone. The Dean Martin-type majority leader defends nobody. Hes looking out for himself.
Then erupted one Mark Foley, the Catholic pro-abort Republican from Florida, chairman of a House caucus to fight pedophilia who either sent lewd I-mails to a male page suspected predator or flirted around enough so that he was suckered into making gross suggestions by an 18-year-old page. Once the rumor got out, John Shimkus of Illinois, head of the 3-member panel that supervised the pages, did a stupid thing. He didnt inform his Democratic counterpart, went to Foley and told him to knock it off. Staffers went to Dennys staffers and told them things were getting rough. Dennys staffers, Illinois types used to schmoozing and soothing things over the way Illinois Combine pols do, either didnt tell Denny or told him and he just moved his eyebrows up and down and did nothing, waiting for things to settle down. Nobody knows. One Congressman says he told Denny. Denny doesnt recall being told. Now the Dean Martin-like majority leader told the press he told Denny. Nobodys trying to face up to the rap; Dennys all alone. No resources: no Gingrich, no DeLay, no Livingstone. A staff that covers up. Dennys all alone.
So Denny calls on the FBI and wants a probe. He refuses to quit. He fudges about his staff, doesnt know if they told him or not. Did they? He cant remember. No action: just a probe. Outside the Capitol, Rush Limbaugh shouts the Dems are throwing bean-balls. Surebut whats the answer? Denny cant stand there and say they did it too. Thats where we are today.
Heres a re-working of something I wrote earlier. Three immediate points and one over-arching principle. First immediate: Two Congressmen say they told Denny there was trouble with Foley. He did what Denny does; raise his eyebrows and purse his lips. Otherwise nothing. Shimkus, chairman of the group that monitors pages, wanted to keep the lid on for the GOP. He gently admonishes Foley: tsk-tsk; dont do that again, trying to keep it away from his Dem partner. Everybody knew Foley was a homosexual. That wasnt the issue: keeping the lid on was. Shutting up, stone-wallings an Illinois trick.
Second immediate: Limbaugh is right as far as he goes. The decision of Foley to resign is far more honorable than Democrats practice when theyre caught in sexual scrapes. As one who used to visit the House every week for 27 years, I well remember Democrat Gerry Studds in 1982 brazenly turning his back on the House as it voted to censure him for having sexual relations with a male page age 17. Studds said so what; the kid was old enough to make his decision. When critics howled, Studds said they were homophobes. He was reelected time and again in his Massachusetts district. Before he retired, he was promoted to committee chairman. In contrast, that same year Republican Dan Crane (Philips brother) confessed to having sexual relation with a female page, wept before the whole House, was censured and was punished by voters for his self-acknowledged disgrace.
No shameful resignation came from another Massachusetts Democrat, however. In 1989, Democrat Barney Frank hired as a personal aide a male prostitute and convicted drug possessor. He let him live in his apartment. The guy turned the place into a homosexual bordello. A Democratic House refused to censure Frank, giving him a reprimand only. refused to resign after an affair with a male page who while Franks was gone from his apartment ran the place as a bordello where homosexual trysts were arranged for pay. And who doesnt remember Bill Clinton who refused to resign? Thus the Democratic outrage on Foley is unconvincing.
Third immediate: Denny Hastert has proved to exemplify the Peter Principal of rising beyond his competence. And not just on the Foley issue. Remember earlier this year, when he joined with the Democrats to protest the FBIs invasion of Democrat William Jeffersons office where they found $600,000 in cashreally cold cashin his office refrigerator? Was Hastert indignant? Yes, but not at Jefferson: at the Justice Department for sanctioning the invasion of a Congressmans sacrosanct office. He joined Nancy Pelosi in claiming separation of powers protects the Congress from such probesi.e. he believes members of Congress are immune from the punishment others would have to face from bribery.
The story of Denny Hastert is one who is wallowing alone without his old mentors to tell him what to do. Thus, after election this November, regardless of whether the Republicans keep House control or lose it, GOP members are required to call another caucus electionto pick legislative leaders from Speaker to majority leader, whip and conference chair, from top to bottom. If Hastert and his team manage to run for reelection and win, so be itbut the odds are they wont. There are talented Republicans of integrity in the chamberJohn Shadegg of Arizona, Mike Pence of Indiana and Ray LaHood of Illinois among them. At the first session following election, the GOP members will determine whether or not Hastert and his team have forgotten what they were sent to Washington for.
Now for the overarching principle: The Republicans are paying for tolerating homosexuality in their ranks without having tried to get rid of the homosexuals. Cowardice and political correctness has a lot to do with it. The partys platforms have articulated a strong message in support of the Judeo-Christian ethic and against special rights for homosexuals. Foley wouldnt answer what his sexual orientation was; on that basis alone he should have been opposed by his party. He wasnt. If he got elected anyhow, he should not have received GOP favors in the House. Knowing all about him, Hastert and others should not have given him the caucus chair which allowed him to phony up his opposition to pedophilia. There is no excuse for it.
Sappy tolerance for homosexuality should be eradicated from the Republican party. Just as a congressional candidate has to account for excessive drinking, womanizing, gambling, business improprieties and other vices, there should be no silent murmur that forbids the raising of the issue of homosexuality. For that matter, the Bush White House has a staffer who manages liaison with homosexuals. Why? The official Republican party has what it calls the Log Cabin Republicansa caucus of homosexuals. It is an open secret that GOP presidential candidates try to schmooze them. We should know who they are. The only openly homosexual Republican Congressman is Jim Kolbe of Arizona who is retiring this year. He should have been opposed by the GOP in Arizona and, if elected, certainly not given such pandering respect within the GOP caucus.
Theres more than enough blame to go around. Not all of itbut a good dealbelongs on the strapping shoulders of my old summer student, Denny Hastert. None of us ever dreamed that the telling and re-telling of sports stories would get him this far. But pursing your lips, raising your eyebrows up and down and throwing a big arm over somebodys shoulder is no substitute for thinking creatively. But that was never Dennys strong suit.