Dennis Hastert: Victim

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John Boehner and Dennis Hastert at the unveiling of Hastert’s portrait at the Capitol, Washington, D.C., July 2009

Between his indictment on May 28 and his court appearance on June 9, at which his lawyer entered pleas of innocence on his behalf, almost nothing was heard from Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House. He had been accused by the government of violating money-laundering laws and lying to the FBI about doing so. He had allegedly been withdrawing large sums from his own bank accounts, paying off a character referred to as Individual A, in compensation for some past “misconduct.” According to the indictment Hastert tried to evade requirements that withdrawals of over $10,000 be reported to the government; and he lied to the FBI about his use of the money he had withdrawn.

Almost immediately after the indictment the authorities anonymously leaked the additional information that Individual A was male and that the misconduct was of a sexual kind. It had taken place, according to the leaks, when Hastert was a teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville, Illinois, sometime between the years 1967 and 1981. The payments belonged to a much later period, beginning after a meeting with Individual A in 2010, two years after Hastert had joined a Washington law and lobbying firm. In other words, if Hastert’s past misdeed had involved a minor, the compensation arrangements were allowed to wait thirty-odd years until the Speaker had cashed in on his experience and contacts and become a very well-paid lobbyist.

The large sums of money allegedly demanded of Hastert—$3.5 million, of which about half had already been paid—have convinced many people that a really disgraceful secret was being covered up. At that price, it must have been something truly—and here the writer instinctively reaches for a rare word—truly heinous. But we don’t know the facts and it seems unwise to calibrate the heinousness of the misdeed on a straightforward dollar scale. Hastert, confronted with this figure from his past, could have panicked in private, without recourse to sober advice. Or he could have made a cool, realistic assessment of his potential loss of future earnings if a relatively minor offense (for anyone else) undermined his reputation for probity, such as it was.

What is clear is that he quickly has been made an unperson. His lucrative jobs evaporated. There have been demands to remove his portrait from the Capitol. His name was removed from a public policy center at Wheaton College he had helped found. He became a byword for hypocrisy. The hush money could have been more about the desperate future he faced than the embarrassing past.

Some commentators have allowed their pens to run away with them. Here is Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo on June 1: “Needless to say, I’m not trying to portray Hastert as a victim…

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