Long before Barack Obama even thought to run for office, Dennis Hastert was setting an example for him as the original "No Drama" politician from Illinois. From his rumpled looks to his aversion to the spotlight, Hastert was a member of Congress who people outside Capitol Hill almost never noticed and rarely remembered even when he was setting a record as the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House.
Until Thursday, of course. On Thursday, that all changed when the former 10-term member of the House was indicted, charged with lying to the FBI and trying to hide $3.5 million in payments to conceal some unspecified "misconduct."
The charge attaches the kind of drama and scandal to the 73-year-old Hastert that he so studiously avoided throughout his rise from wrestling coach of the Yorkville Foxes. It was his skill at staying out of the headlines that most appealed to his fellow Republicans when they were desperately trying to extricate themselves from the self-inflicted wounds of scandal and embarrassment in 1998.
Speaker Newt Gingrich was on his way out, stung by an ethics reprimand in 1997, a mishandled impeachment effort against President Bill Clinton, and the unexpected loss of Republican seats in the 1998 elections. Only days after that election setback, Gingrich—who knew he did not have the votes to retain his speakership—announced he was resigning. Into the breach stepped the Louisiana-suave Rep. Bob Livingston, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Livingston was easily elected speaker. But he never made it past the "speaker-elect" stage. One of the loudest of those calling for the House to impeach Clinton over an extra-marital affair, Livingston was felled by his own sexual liaison, one that had been unearthed by pornographer Larry Flynt. On December 18, 1998, only 42 days after Gingrich was forced out, Livingston confessed to the Republican caucus that he had committed infidelity "on occasion," an act, he said, that "nearly cost me my marriage and my family."
He was at least the fourth House Republican to admit to an affair while calling for Clinton's scalp.
Already battered by the popular backlash to the impeachment and stunned by the election, Livingston's demise left Republicans reeling. They were desperate for a little more humility and normalcy and a lot less Gingrich hubris and Livingston hypocrisy. They were ready for Hastert—even if they didn't know it at first.
I watched this from a great perch in a Washington news bureau whose newspapers included the Aurora Beacon News, which, because it served Hastert's home district, was just about the only newspaper he would talk to those days. Not that he talked much; that wasn't his style. He wasn't one to share after-session drinks, and he wasn't one to accept invitations to press dinners. Instead, he just wanted to go home to be with Jean, his wife of 25 years.
So few reporters knew him that our bureau was flooded with calls from other reporters. What we told them was that Hastert was the anti-Gingrich and the anti-Livingston, not to mention the anti-Tom DeLay and anti-Dick Armey, to name the two other GOP leaders, both of whom were too volatile and controversial to step into the breach.
What the Republicans were looking for was the kind of lawmaker who prized civility and was friends with both conservatives and moderates; the kind of politician who would title the first chapter to his memoir "Just Call Me Denny."
In that book—Speaker. Lessons From My Forty Years in Coaching and Politics—Hastert showed that he understood the general Washington wonderment over his rise to the speakership. "I'm not the most articulate guy or a great speech master; I'm not pretty, and I didn't go to Harvard or Yale," he wrote. "How did I wind up where I am?"
In his opening remarks on the day he gained the gavel, he scored high marks when he promised to put "the turbulent days behind us." And he was praised by Democrats when he said, "Some have felt slighted, insulted, or ignored. That is wrong, and that will change."
But the good feelings did not last and the lofty promises were not kept. Hastert enjoyed historic longevity but is remembered as one of the weaker speakers. What became known as "The Hastert Rule" bespoke that weakness as it became an article of party orthodoxy that he would not let any bill become law unless it enjoyed the favor of a majority of the majority caucus. Deal-making across the aisle of the type that made Sam Rayburn or Joe Cannon strong speakers was gone.
And the promises to move past the turbulence of scandals? They were undercut by one Republican congressman—Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California—accepting the most bribes in congressional history on the way to a long prison term, while another—Mark Foley of Florida—sent sexually suggestive e-mails and instant messages to young pages. Both scandals came to a head before the 2006 elections, helping cost the GOP 31 seats, ending both Republican control of the House and Hastert's speakership.
By 2007, Hastert wanted out. He resigned his seat and became a lobbyist. In that lucrative post, he once again stepped back into the shadows. Now, eight years later, he finds himself again in the headlines. They are not headlines he likes. They are the type that can prompt him, once again, to ask, "How did I wind up where I am?"