As you can see in this story here, we are now getting the details of what we’ve suspected or known in outline since the news first broke last year: that Denny Hastert, the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in history, second in the line to the presidency for eight years, was a serial pedophile who preyed on adolescent boys in his charge when he was a high school wrestling coach before entering electoral politics. What is worth remembering is that Hastert’s improbable rise to the pinnacle of political power in Washington was a direct consequence of Republican party efforts to exploit and eventually criminalize Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex life in order to overturn the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. The chain of events is clear and straightforward.
First, before reviewing the history, lets stipulate that sexual abuse of minors is a category greater offense than marital infidelity, which is inherently private and really no business of the state’s one way or another. Still, Hastert’s rise is so inextricably tied to sexual hypocrisy and political moralizing they inevitably become part of a single story.
From before Bill Clinton became President in January 1993, Republican opponents realized that his sexual impulsivity and history of extramarital affairs was one of his greatest political vulnerabilities. The key was how to take the story out of the super market tabloids and into the courts. The first big opportunity was the Republican-backed sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones in 1994. It was the legal maneuvering over the Jones lawsuit combined with the double-dip, wildly partisan and almost infinitely wide-ranging Independent Counsel investigation of Ken Starr that led to the revelation of Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which finally led to his impeachment, the first in 130 years, in 1998.
Now, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign gathered steam in 2015, there was a reevaluation of this whole sordid history. Absent much of the political context of the 1990s and with different attitudes toward accusations of sexual harassment and rape, many now think that Jones’, Juanita Broaddrick’s and Kathleen Willey’s accusations against Clinton are presumptively true. I have no desire or ability to litigate these claims here. I will simply say that I think the quality of the evidence, the extremely politicized context of each accusation and the wildly abundant evidence of consensual liaisons leaves little reason to believe that Clinton was or is more than a serial cheater on his wife.
Whatever you believe about that, the basic chain of events does not change. Clinton’s mind-bogglingly reckless and impulsive relationship with Lewinsky did come to light in early 1998. And after it became clear that the mere revelation was not enough to drive Clinton from office, congressional Republicans grew increasingly determined to find a way to fashion it into a crime which would justify Clinton’s impeachment. (It is worth remembering that Clinton’s vaunted second term approval ratings only truly hit their highs after the Lewinsky scandal broke.) And that they did.
As the November 1998 mid-term election approached, then Speaker Newt Gingrich was predicting a wave election which would bring 40 or even 50 new Republican members of the House into office. What was so odd about this prediction is that it was widely believed in Washington political circles and by most pundits – notwithstanding the fact that public polls never showed any evidence for this. This part I remember vividly because I was a rookie journalist at the time and I told all who would listen (basically everyone in our office) that I thought Republicans would actually lose seats in the House rather than gain them. There was no special insight to this. It was just a matter of looking at the polls. But Washington thought otherwise, largely on the reasoning that whatever the polls showed, conservative Christians were so upset about Clinton’s affair that they would turn out in droves and sweep Democrats from their already decimated numbers in the House.
That didn’t happen. Democrats actually gained a modest number of seats, something all but unprecedented in the sixth year of a president’s term. The shock of the result led to Gingrich’s fall from power and resignation almost immediately.
What we would learn only later was that while driving the country toward impeachment Gingrich was himself carrying on an affair with a twenty-something congressional aide named Callista Bisek. Gingrich would later divorce his wife Marianne and marry Bisek – they remain married – just as he had years before married Marianne after carrying on an affair with her while married to his first wife.
Just after the election, impeachment seemed dead. Republicans promised a return to bread and butter issues after a perceived public rebuke of their obsessive focus on impeachment and the president’s sex life. But that didn’t last long. Indeed, what soon unfolded foreshadowed the pattern by which the 2013 RNC ‘autopsy’ was followed by the failure of immigration reform and the most racially charged GOP presidential nomination in history three years later. The GOP’s base’s hunger to punish the President was far greater than establishment belief that impeachment had proven to be a tremendous political loser. What’s more, Gingrich’s departure empowered the man who had already in many respects been running the show in the House: Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Notwithstanding the election results, DeLay was totally committed to moving ahead with impeachment and was able to use the threat of primaries to pull members back into the pro-impeachment camp.
Meanwhile, the Republican conference quickly settled on Rep. Bob Livingston as Speaker Designate for the next Congress and de facto leader as the House moved toward impeaching the president. But then news broke that Hustler’s Larry Flynt (yes, it was all really weird) was preparing an article on affairs conducted by Livingston and other members of Congress. This pushed Livingston to admit his own history of adultery and then – the very day the House passed articles of impeachment – in effect resign the Speakership even though he had not actually become Speaker.
Livingston resigned from the House and was succeeded by David Vitter, who would continuing paying for sex with prostitutes after moving to Washington to take his seat in the House and later in the Senate. In 2007, Vitter’s phone number emerged from a published list of the phone records of “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Vitter nonetheless survived the prostitution scandal and was releected to the Senate in 2010. He failed in his bid to become Governor of Louisiana in 2015. Palfrey later committed suicide, aged 52, shortly after being convicted of money laundering tied to running the prostitution ring.
The rapid fire events of the previous six weeks – the upset election result, the resignation of the Speaker, the impeachment of the President, followed by the resignation of the de facto Speaker – left official Washington and especially the House Republican caucus in a state of shock and pandemonium. Various names were at first mooted to succeed Livingston. But consensus quickly formed around a man little known even in Washington, let alone in the nation at large: Dennis J. Hastert.
I remember this particular day quite vividly because I was covering the story as it happened for Salon. A House GOP aide who is now a sometimes TV pundit told me that day, “It’s really the power structure putting him forward. It’s a consensus day in the capital.”
As ironic as it seems today, Hastert was suddenly thrust forward by a House GOP caucus, which had spent the last six to seven weeks decapitating itself, on the belief that he assured steadiness, colorlessness, zero controversy and a total lack of any surprises. Speaking to veteran Republican aides after the initial Hastert revelations last year, I could not find anyone who had the remotest inkling there was even anything very interesting in Hastert’s private life, let alone such a shocking revelation. Indeed, for eight years Hastert provided just what Republicans had hoped from him – colorlessness and non-controversial leadership of the House which was, in procedural terms, fairly effective.
And that is the whole story. Without the unending hunt into Bill Clinton’s sex life, you never would have heard of Denny Hastert. It also seems highly unlikely he ever would have had to answer, even in this limited way, for his own past.