Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Personal Aside: Denny Hastert Quits Because He Has Better Things to Do Than Hang Around to the End of the Term Voters Elected Him to Fill. Good Old Denny.


Please spare us the tears about his leaving. My old student (he was a silent member of a summer-school class I Allen Gittelson and I taught at Loyola 30 years ago under the auspices of the now defunct Taft Institute. It was a course for high school teachers who wanted to enrich themselves in history and political science. I noticed the buff-colored haircut and the eyebrows that would go up and down, his lips pursed as if ready to make a statement—but then seeming to change his mind. That happened all summer. At the end of the course he told us both that he had enjoyed it, that he taught wrestling and history and that he was getting ready to make his first trip to Washington, D. C. to see all the sights.

He was a cipher in the class but the classmates didn’t think so because as a wrestling coach he had won all-state for his school. And he ingratiated himself with the almost all-male contingent, telling stories about how he began as a fry cook in his family restaurant and coaching wrestling that were, evidently, uproarious. He didn’t share them with either Alan or me. I am told you had to be there and hear the tales first-hand to appreciate them fully.

As the state knows, he went to Washington, saw the sights, decided to spend some free time in politics. He got a job as an intern to a state senator. Then after the senator died Denny ran to succeed him. He lost and finished third in the primary election. Then the incumbent died and he was named to the seat. He was a good old boy in Springfield telling stories about wrestling and became very popular. Following which the incumbent congressman, John Grotberg, had a major stroke and never regained consciousness. They kept him on ice while he won reelection, then, checking with the GOP committee and his wife of course, disconnected the apparatus and he died. There was a special primary and Denny won. But he had to face a very popular woman Democrat in the district. Somehow the story gained currency that her marriage wasn’t any good. It was a rumor that was hard to answer because it had so many aspects. She never really answered it satisfactorily. When Denny was asked if he had anything to do with the rumors he waggled his eyebrows, pursued his lips as if to say something but then decided not to.

And Denny won.

He goes to Congress and captivates Bob Michel, the Republican leader, with his stories about wrestling. He becomes a kind of relief valve for Michel. Whenever Michel starts worrying about the fast-rising Newt Gingrich he listened to Denny’s stories. Michel decides he’s not going to run again. Good thing, too, because Newt got the votes to succeed him. One of Newt’s lieutenants was Tom DeLay. When Newt becomes Speaker there is a lot of intellectual firepower in the GOP. Newt was and is a Ph.D in history—50% genius and 50% nuts but he was and is an intellectual power (so disdainful of mere administration that ranks far below ideas in his view that we are rather fortunate he never became president). But to go on with the intellectual treasure-house of the GOP then. The majority leader, Dick Armey was—and is—a Ph.D in economics. One high up leader is Bob Livingstone, an encyclopedic leader of the House, key on appropriations with a patrician background: descendent of the man who swore in George Washington as first president. Tom DeLay, no Ph.D but one who killed bugs for a living but who was and is also street smart. He was the majority whip.

But DeLay, known as the “Velvet Hammer,” was rather tough to take because he was so intense on getting votes he would aggravate people in his caucus. So Newt got the idea of making an inoffensive guy, Denny Hastert, the deputy whip and having him follow up on the people DeLay offended, wagging his eyebrows, pursing his lips and placing a huge arm around their shoulders to tell them a funny story about wrestling. It worked and Denny was in the leadership of the party in a town that not long before he had visited as a tourist.

Not known for philosophical conviction, for brains or articulation, Denny Hastert made it as so many others have by being inoffensive. One day as he was walking to his office, he stopped to shake hands with a lobbyist. Best thing he ever did. He waggled his eyebrows, pursued his lips as if to say something, then thought better of it and started to tell a funny story about wrestling when—bang-bang-bang—a series of shots came from the office he shared with Tom Delay. A nut had gotten in trying to kill DeLay, might have killed Denny as well but instead had killed a Capitol policeman.

The event produced a bad reaction on DeLay. He wept, grew morose, talked about the uncertainty of life. His work was affected. So Newt and the other elders decided that he should take more time off and play golf at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. Okay but how would he get there? There was a non-profit that could be arranged to pay for the trip with DeLay making a speech on some weighty issue in the clubhouse. That worked and DeLay took a number of trips to regain his composure at the sufferance of the lobbyist who had set up the nonprofit, tax-exempt, Jack Abramoff. DeLay recovered his composure and became the old DeLay—grabbing people by the lapels, promising rewards and stark punishment for defectors and very important starting to plan how to get Texas more Republican congressional districts. This caused a whole lot of controversy along with the free trips to Scotland and elsewhere.

At the same time, Newt as Speaker decided to make more money on the side by selling tapes of his college lectures and books—adopting to his own specifications what he had criticized Democratic Speaker Jim Wright for doing. So Newt was in trouble. He tried to bring government to a halt but Clinton won that tussle. To take his mind off his weighty worries of state, he got involved with a woman not his wife but somebody else’s wife and carried on an affair with her, getting so busy with this and other tasks that he neglected to pay much attention to his constituency, the Republican members of the House.

Then there was a putsch by some of Newt’s former friends who attempted to stab him like Caesar. A ringleader was Dick Armey. But when a reporter found out about it and identified the ringleaders, Armey said he hadn’t been involved at all and ratted on the others, destroying his own credibility in the process since everybody knew Armey was behind the putsch. Newt then decided to retire to make a lot of money. He always valued a lot of money at least as high—maybe higher—than power. He was getting a divorce from wife number two, he had a national name and wanted to shed the boring fundamentals of being Speaker. So after a bad off-year election when the Republicans retained House control but not by much, Newt said he wanted to quit.

Okay but who would take over as Speaker? Dick Armey was discredited in the eyes of his fellow co-conspirators so he decided to quit to make a lot of money. They turned to Bob Livingstone who accepted it. He was ready to ascend to the second highest spot in the nation after the presidency—but alas. His girl friend, a lobbyist with whom he had been keeping company on the side, threatened to spill the beans. So he made a manly breast of things, went home and confessed all to his wife. She pondered about whether to give him the air or not but decided she had had enough invested in this enterprise to keep him. Only she said as a condition he would have to get out of the House and become a lobbyist and thus make a lot of money. Of course he had to agree: what else could he do? So Livingstone was out.

Tom DeLay was already spatting with a Democratic prosecutor in Texas over a number of things and besides he was not necessarily the type to inspire adulation. He was told he was out but he never wanted in. But anyhow he was out. All the while, chafing in his splendiferous Speaker’s office, Newt was getting anxious to move on and make some real money out there so they all got together and suggested—guess who? The guy who instead of answering a question, waggled his eyebrows, pursed his lips and appeared to be on the verge of saying something substantive but then seemed to say the hell with it and remain mum. He had funny wrestling stories and a huge arm he could put around dissident lawmakers and woo them.

Wait! said some, but Denny’s as light as a panama hat! Yes, they agreed, but with the president in power he’s got all the ideas anyhow and Denny will just have to…waggle his eyebrows and--. Well, you get the idea.

So that was fine. Tom DeLay would be the hammer and the White House would come up with all the ideas. Denny would concentrate on wielding the gavel and taking care of the home folks in Illinois. Which he did. Except that a pesky upstart, snotty nosed kid Senator from a rich family, Peter Fitzgerald, who had given up the idea of making a lot of money for public service, would not play ball on the age-old game of getting more federal dollars for Illinois. Fitzgerald didn’t believe he was sent to Washington to be an errand boy. Heresy by Illinois standards. Denny was outraged.

So Denny decided to apply old fashioned discipline to Peter in a number of ways. As Speaker he announced he would act like another Republican senator from the state and pass just as a Senator would on appointments and on projects. Fitzgerald said no. There was one appointment Fitzgerald vowed to make and that was the new U. S. Attorneys including the one from the Northern District of Illinois. He didn’t want to have a good old boy from the Illinois Combine (name coined by John Kass, my friend) to fumblingly screw up the prosecution of George Ryan. The White House’s Karl Rove in concert with Denny Hastert wanted to protect George Ryan. They told Fitzgerald he could name anybody he wanted but he or she would have to come from Illinois.

Fitzgerald looked around at the Combine legal talent from Illinois and decided he would go beyond the state’s borders and so he did by making the announcement public. He chose Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) of New York. That got George Ryan riled. It got Denny Hastert so riled his eyebrows went up and down on their own and his lips pursed as if to say something but anger fumed out of them. . It got Ray LaHood riled who announced that he was looking for somebody to run against Fitzgerald. He found that somebody who is a charter member of the establishment—Andy McKenna—whose father of the same name is chairman of everything that means anything in boards, and holds down more seats than any other living human, from the “Tribune’ to McDonald’s to Notre Dame. This younger McKenna not the old man, said he would run against the too-pure Fitzgerald. Now this didn’t happen but McKenna is articulating a case for reform in politics.

Not content with finding his candidate against Fitzgerald, , Denny got the Republican state chairman unhorsed and found a substitute—the state treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka. She became state Republican chairman and in her debut on my radio show refused…utterly refused…to endorse the incipient candidacy of Peter Fitzgerald for reelection. To show you how much the truth isn’t in her, she then denied what she said on the radio although 100,000 people heard her. The angle: will you believe your own ears or me? She still carries that conviction to this very day choosing to live in her own fantasy world in private life. Pardon me—not really private life as she still is paid by taxpayers as a member of the RTA. Believing rightly that he could win reelection against one party but not against both, Peter Fitzgerald announced his retirement and as a banker he is back to making a lot of money.

But let us not get sidetracked from Denny Hastert. He tried mightily to help his soul-mate George Ryan politicize the staff of the Abraham Lincoln museum but was foiled by a Fitzgerald near-filibuster. Then his statesmanlike attention turned to the House since he had been told by fellow congressmen and his staff that one of the more lavender Republican congressmen, Mark Foley., had been saying naughty things to a young male page. Whenever he heard this, Denny resorted to his usual stratagem: his eyebrows moved up and down, his lips pursed as if to say something and he promptly forgot about it. When confronted he did the honorable thing and deny he ever heard about it and that he had ever heard his aide mention it.

All the while to distract himself from this sex business, he concentrated on taking orders from the White House where he had been told they had a monopoly on the brains. Thus he grew big on the matter of investing the people’s money. Investing is shorthand for spending. He became the biggest investor in modern congressional history. Waggling his eyebrows, pursing his lips as if to say something before he decides not to say anything he has just completed a record length of service among Republican Speakers by leading one of the most flagrantly excessive spending Congresses of all time. But the record of the spendingest, most riotous Congress plus the lavender tinged Foley caused people not to ask for Denny to campaign for them. As a result he was banned from making speeches in the off-year campaign of 2006.

He stayed home in Plano. Except to go to a steak house where he got suckered by the advanceman for an evangelical hustler and invited the hustler to his house the next day where he allowed the hustler go meet the press and gain national attention with Denny’s views on a number of things.

In 2006, Denny ran for reelection and promised to serve his term. But then the Democrats won the House. His interest in public service was doused. First, waggling his brows and pursing his lips he managed to say it would be his last term. Then waggling the same eyebrows and pursing his lips he managed to add he might resign mid-term. Resign and break the contract with the voters to whom he promised he would finish out his term? Well some would say that. But when you’re on the mat and the referee pounds the flat of his hand on it and says you’re out, what’s the use of staying?

. Good old Denny. His resignation leaves the 14th district without representation. So there must be a special election within 120 days which means the primary will be held February 5—Denny saying, his eyebrows waggling and lips pursed as if saying something profound, “this will minimize inconvenience to the voters and expense to the counties in the 14th congressional district.” General election will be held March 25, 2008. The winner of that special election will serve out the remainder of Denny’s term until November of 2008. Eight months. All that money spent on two elections because Denny wants to spend more time with his family.

All three major Republican contestants praised Denny yesterday. Jim Oberweis’ p. r. man wrote that Oberweis says Denny is the gold standard” of congressional reputation in the 14th. At first he wrote that Denny’s reputation has been sound as the dollar but it wouldn’t sound right.

Why the hurry for Denny to leave Congress? Is he taking his bat and ball and going home now that he can’t be boss? Well, he never was boss, understand. But he’s going home to preside over the Hastert Institute of Something or Other at Wheaton College. And as the students who are as bored as he was in my class watch, he will waggle his eyebrows, purse his lips as if to say something important. But he won’t. He never has. Never will. Good old Denny.

Is this a great country or what?


  1. I liked your perspective Tom on Denny! It is great!

    The only think I would add would be Denny's coziness with Insurance lobby..

    Also he would get on Talk Radio in Aurora on 1280 to promote a book. He REFUSED to take any calls. He just wanted their vote not their opinion.
    He epitomized the professional politician and in my opinion was in it for the bucks and the connections..

    The only two words that I can come up with is BOOB and Blah.

    SO go back to your restaurant Denny (I hope no undocumented people are working there) and tell your stories that no one will care about.... and pleeeeze just fade away as soon as possible.....

  2. As a big fan of yours, and a diligent reader of your posts, I think you have grossly underestimated the talent and contributions of Denny Hastert. Hastert was Speaker during a time when the House was evenly divided as well as bitterly divided. Despite that fact, Hastert was able to shepard through much of the Bush agenda. Important energy bills, hotly contested, made it through the House only to die in the Senate. Did we not get a ban on partial birth abortion under his watch?
    I served the Republican Party and, later, the citizens of Southern Illinois on the bench. In my dealings with the Speaker, I found him honest and straight foward. I found him solidly conservative and fighting the good fight. I found him far more commited to rebuilding the Republican Party than some of the others your fondly refer to. I think Denny Hastert is a good man, a good public servant and a man of accomplishment. He deserved a better RIP from important conservative leaders as yourself.
    When Jack Ryan self-destructed, the Speaker was a strong voice that we needed to replace him with a Pro-Lifer and made an honest effort to help recruit a quality candidate while most others threw in the towel and doomed us to a choice between Keyes and some Pro-Choicer that had never voted Republican before and had baggage of her own. I know because I was in the middle of that mess. I, for one, appreciate his service and his consistent efforts to advance social and fiscal conservatism.

  3. I was terrified that something would happen to Bush and Cheney would have a heart attack, and we would have Hastert for president.

    Now I am worried about Pelosi.

  4. Tom, you really know how to tell a story. It was interesting, humorous and right "on the money." Always enjoy your fearless style of writing.

  5. Wright had a bunch of his old speeches printed up in a pamphlet. Various sleazoids bought crates full of the pamphlet at ~$10 each, proceeds to Wright's pocket. Gingrich wrote an actual book, published by an actual publisher, which was sold in actual bookstores. The other charge against him was that tax-exempt funds raised for a course he taught at a small college were commingled with campaign funds. However, he was eventually cleared by the IRS.
    ("50% genius-50% nuts": I like it.)

  6. Let's face it, Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott bowed out early to accelerate their entry into the lobbying field. Both could care less about their constituents or the added cost of a special election to fill their seats.

  7. If only Denny could take more of the deadweight with him. The Old Guard needs to go, if they don't they'll drive the national and Illinois Republican party further into the minority.

  8. Tom I heard that show when Judy B went out of her way not to endorse Peter Fitzgerald--the greatest Senator Illinois ever had. I remember you almost begged her to endorse this sitting Senator and she announced she would "endorse the Nominee of the Party". The eventual choice was Alan Keyes who got more votes in 2004 that Judy B did in 2006.