Friday, October 6, 2006

The Denny Thing in Retrospect. Some Re-Working of an Earlier Theme on the House.

speaker hastert
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. “I’m a history teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville, High. I’ve 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 name’s Denny Hastert. I’m 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.

“It’s 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 senator’s 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 didn’t 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 Denny’s side (not him personally) spread some unkind stories about her marriage. She’s 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 she’s 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 he’s the 51st Speaker of the House of Representatives—next 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, Madigan’s 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 DeLay’s 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 people’s nerves. But Denny Hastert, a big bear of a man with minimal ego, just listened and schmoozed and looked like he was going to speak—but didn’t. Like Chauncey Gardiner in the film “Being There” whatever he said was taken to be profound. Denny would say: “I think this’ll 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 wouldn’t 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 wasn’t part of it. But Armey spun off, decided to go to the private sector. Denny’s 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 reporter’s question. Bang-bang. Shots came from his and DeLay’s office. A nut invaded it, shot a policeman friend of DeLay dead. If Denny hadn’t stopped he would have been in direct line of fire. But what it did to Denny’s boss, DeLay was serious.

DeLay took the shooting as a kind of omen. He wept on TV and couldn’t continue. He went to the cop’s 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. Andrew’s 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 speak—but then didn’t. He’d 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: That’s 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 don’t. They’d say: at least Denny listens. But not all the time; sometimes he nods but he’s far away. There were no ideas coming from him. But ideas weren’t 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 didn’t 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 wife—herself wife number two—mad. 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 he’d 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 she’d talk. He decided he didn’t 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 wasn’t Speaker material. He’d 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 problems—after 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 he’d keep on taking orders from DeLay.

And he would have—but. 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, he’s 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 isn’t 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 Abramoff’s clients. Speaker Denny went to Ney and told him he had to quit. Ney did. Now he’s 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. He’s 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 didn’t inform his Democratic counterpart, went to Foley and told him to knock it off. Staffers went to Denny’s staffers and told them things were getting rough. Denny’s staffers, Illinois types used to schmoozing and soothing things over the way Illinois Combine pols do, either didn’t 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 doesn’t recall being told. Now the Dean Martin-like majority leader told the press he told Denny. Nobody’s trying to face up to the rap; Denny’s all alone. No resources: no Gingrich, no DeLay, no Livingstone. A staff that covers up. Denny’s all alone.

So Denny calls on the FBI and wants a probe. He refuses to quit. He fudges about his staff, doesn’t know if they told him or not. Did they? He can’t remember. No action: just a probe. Outside the Capitol, Rush Limbaugh shouts the Dems are throwing bean-balls. Sure—but what’s the answer? Denny can’t stand there and say they did it too. That’s where we are today.

Here’s 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; don’t do that again, trying to keep it away from his Dem partner. Everybody knew Foley was a homosexual. That wasn’t the issue: keeping the lid on was. Shutting up, stone-walling’s 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 they’re 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 (Philip’s 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 doesn’t 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 FBI’s invasion of Democrat William Jefferson’s office where they found $600,000 in cash—really cold cash—in his office refrigerator? Was Hastert indignant? Yes, but not at Jefferson: at the Justice Department for sanctioning the invasion of a Congressman’s sacrosanct office. He joined Nancy Pelosi in claiming separation of powers protects the Congress from such probes—i.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 election—to 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 it—but the odds are they won’t. There are talented Republicans of integrity in the chamber—John 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 party’s platforms have articulated a strong message in support of the Judeo-Christian ethic and against special rights for homosexuals. Foley wouldn’t answer what his sexual orientation was; on that basis alone he should have been opposed by his party. He wasn’t. 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 Republicans”—a 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.

There’s more than enough blame to go around. Not all of it—but a good deal—belongs 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 somebody’s shoulder is no substitute for thinking creatively. But that was never Denny’s strong suit.


  1. Bill Davis indirectly offered a suggestion to help Hastert survive as Speaker: use the scandalous and futile military mission in Iraq to draw attention away from the Foley sex scandal – just the opposite of what Clinton was alleged to have done during the Lewinsky hoopla. (See for more. )

  2. An error on my part: using the military action to distract attention from an investigation of a sex scandal is the same as what conservatives alleged President Clinton had done. To attempt the opposite, Speaker Hastert would have to use an investigation of military action in Iraq and pre-invasion intelligence (for example, get the majority to support Rep. Conyer's calls for a full congressional inquiry) to divert attention from the Foley sex scandal. But even that isn't quite the opposite because apparently was no sexual activity involved in this latter scandal.

  3. if I ever read one.

    "Denny Hastert has proved to exemplify the Peter Principal". Acceptable, but unable to handle an emergency. Like a pilot who can fly as long as all systems are go, but come a malfunction or an emergency, start pratying.

  4. Tom, thank you for an incredibly insightful piece of journalism.

    You should really submit this to someone like The Weekly Standard or National Review.

    The entire country needs to read.

  5. WOW! What an outstanding in depth political article. Tom. I`ve admired you for a long time and you never cease to amaze me with knowledge and wisdom. Keep up the great work.

  6. Yes, very good article Tom. Hastert seems to be a Combine hack; that he's 3rd in line for President is scary. I read that he led the retreat from the Capitol after the anthrax scare, although the building in question supposedly did not test positive at the time.

  7. Does anyone still remember the 1970's movie "Animal House?" Some guys are getting initiated into a fraternity, and they have to dress up in diapers, bend over and touch their toes, and let some guy wearing a mask and robe and wielding a huge paddle whack them on the rear end--and after each whack, they have to say, "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" More than 30 years after Watergate, this much about politics hasn't changed at all: the Republicans are still the guys in the diapers, and the Democrats (and their major media allies) are still the guys with the paddle. After all this time, you would think the Republicans would understand that this is the Democrats' permanent modus operandi--try to drive out your opponents through ginning up charges of scandal--and at least try to come up with some ways to inoculate themselves against this sort of thing. But no: the Dems are always on the attack, and the GOP is always caught flat-footed. Hopefully it won't take losing Congress for them to understand that they finally have to start fighting back in kind.

  8. Does the Foley scandal hurt GOP's chances in 11/06?

    This Foley news helps the GOP. It draws attention away from Iraq while arousing sympathy for all the GOP candidates who had nothing to do with Foley's mistakes.