Hastert joins club of fallen moralists

IN BETTER TIMES: Dennis Hastert served as Speaker of the House longer than any other Republican in U.S. history. He retired in 2007 and became a lobbyist.
IN BETTER TIMES: Dennis Hastert served as Speaker of the House longer than any other Republican in U.S. history. He retired in 2007 and became a lobbyist. THE WASHINGTON POST

Evil lurks in unlikely places. In movies, it is always the all-American nice guy who turns out to be the villain.

In real life, think Bill Cosby (scolding others to “pull up their pants,” even as he allegedly attacked women he had drugged into unconsciousness), Josh Duggar (he of 19 Kids and Counting, who, according to his parents, molested four of his sisters and another child, while Mom and Dad covered up so their moralizing reality show could go on), and former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Florida (who resigned from Congress in 2006, after the disclosure of sexually explicit e-mails he had sent to teenage congressional pages).

If you want to jump on the Hypocrite Wayback Machine, there’s televangelist Jim Bakker (sent to prison for dipping into $165 million in donations, part of which went to silence a church secretary who had accused him of rape).

Now add to the list former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He’s been indicted for withdrawing huge amounts of cash in increments of less than $10,000 to pay off “Individual A” (identified by the New York Times as a male former student), with whom he met several times in 2010 and agreed to pay $3.5 million to “compensate for and conceal” past “misconduct.”

[On Friday, a woman in Montana named her deceased brother as a victim of sexual abuse by Hastert, saying it took place while he was a student at the Illinois high school where Hastert was a wrestling coach.]

Dennis Hastert? Any number of other politicians could be indicted for something similar without setting your hair on fire, but Hastert?

The rumpled, shambling, small-town wrestling coach chosen by Republicans to be speaker as the antidote to previous scandal-plagued leaders. He wafted into office as a breath of fresh air compared to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, the twice- (now thrice-) married conservative who was having an affair with a staffer while supporting Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

Gingrich’s replacement, Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., another hounder of the president, had to quit before being sworn in because it turned out he had been involved in several affairs.

Now all-American nice guy Hastert, who liked being known as “Coach,” turns out to have been not so nice at all. For starters, he accumulated millions while in office, in part by shoehorning fine print into a huge bill that provided federal funds to build a freeway that turned raw land he bought for a pittance into a goldmine.

Throughout, he maintained a humble aura. Except when it came to matters of morality. There, he followed in the hypocritical footsteps of his predecessors, devoting much energy to shaming others about their sexual behavior. He advanced the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act through the House and proposed a constitutional amendment to annul same-sex unions in states that allowed them.

He railed against Clinton, saying as he voted to authorize a House Judiciary Committee investigation that they had to “uphold the rule of law” rather than sweep “the matter under the rug,” which was hardly the case. By then, Clinton had already been subjected to unprecedented levels of public humiliation with the release of the Starr Report, which indulged in gratuitous descriptions of the president’s fumblings with Monica Lewinsky and anatomy.

Grand juries can’t indict on charges of hypocrisy, so Hastert was indicted on what looks like banking technicalities. It’s well known that the FBI takes being lied to badly (Hastert laughably told investigators that he kept the hundreds of thousands in cash because he felt the banking system wasn’t safe), but it doesn’t prosecute all liars.

What may be happening is that Hastert, like Cosby, can’t be successfully prosecuted for the alleged underlying crime of sexual abuse — one so heinous that its perpetrators must be segregated in prison to avoid violent retribution from morally superior murderers and other criminals. But he can be punished, even if it is only for breaking banking laws and lying.

No matter what happens when Hastert appears in court this week, no matter how slight the charges compared to what he allegedly did, the portraits will come down and there will be no roads named after him. He is dead to us.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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