"He is an irrelevant, indispensable, modern, old-fashioned, moderate, archconservative nobody somebody."

The truth about Dennis Hastert.

Fool on the Hill

by Noam Scheiber

Only at TNR

OnlinePost date: 10.10.06

Can there be any doubting the conspiracy at the heart of the Mark Foley scandal? For years, much of official Washington has harbored a shameful secret about a certain congressman. Republicans looked the other way because they worried about their fragile majority, while the media played the role of willing enabler. Most knew the truth would come out eventually, but few had the guts to face it.

I refer here, of course, to the fact that Dennis Hastert is a bumbling half-wit–something that became apparent to the world last week but had been common knowledge in Washington for almost a decade. It was roughly eight years ago, after all, that Tom DeLay installed Hastert as his front-man, knowing full well that Hastert was no more capable of being speaker than the average sheepdog, to which he bears a remarkable resemblance. (Just after Hastert accepted the speaker’s gig, a reporter asked him how he felt. Hastert’s one-word response: “Scared.”) But, rather than call DeLay on this lapse in judgment, House Republicans joined forces with the press to perpetrate an elaborate cover-up.

Reading back over the last several years of Hastert coverage, one is astonished by the lengths to which reporters go to avoid outing him as a guileless nincompoop. One common approach–frequently deployed in stories about dumb-but-powerful politicians–is to interpret Hastert’s apparent lack of intelligence as evidence of his enigmatic character, as though Hastert were a walking riddle with jowls and a Midwestern accent. So, for example, you get passages like this from Jonathan Franzen’s 11,000-word New Yorker profile of Hastert in 2003:

‘No other G.O.P. elephant is described by the blind more variously than Hastert. If you’re a lobbyist or a good-government watchdog, he is the seventeen-year veteran of Washington politics whose younger son, Ethan, has worked for Vice-President Dick Cheney and whose older son, Joshua, is a K Street defense and technology consultant. If you vote in Hastert’s district, he is the deeply Illinoisan former coach who spends every weekend at home with his wife and their dogs. … If you’re John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, you say that the Speaker “is not a closet moderate.” If you listen to one of Hastert’s funny, self-deprecating campaign speeches, you can’t help liking him… He is an irrelevant, indispensable, modern, old-fashioned, moderate, archconservative nobody somebody.’

Typically, the reporter will then provide an account of Hastert’s behind-the-scenes élan. Here is Denny Hastert, master legislative strategist, peerless vote-counter, party-unifier extraordinaire. But, wouldn’t you know, absolutely none of these skills is evident in public. Invariably, one of two things strikes you about these stories. The first is that they’re so small-bore that they actually underscore the point that Hastert is a nonentity. Many of them even have a faintly patronizing tone, like a mother bragging that her 6-year-old poured his own bowl of Kix this morning. Take a Roll Call story from 2001 noting that Hastert had recently “asserted himself by moving dramatically to restructure two committees to resolve a bitter feud between two Members.” Really? Two whole committees? All by himself?

The handful of behind-the-scenes stories that don’t fit this mold generally err in the opposite direction–so outlandish as to be implausible on their face. As Hastert took over the speaker’s job in 1999, a profile in The Hill noted that he’d been DeLay’s campaign manager when DeLay ran for GOP whip in 1994. This pitted Hastert and DeLay against a candidate backed by soon-to-be-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “According to several accounts,” reported The Hill, “Gingrich–who was supporting his friend, former-Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.), for whip–told colleagues he knew then DeLay would beat Walker the moment he chose Hastert to run his campaign.” Right. No doubt Gingrich, who is famously lacking in self-confidence, was quaking in his boots.

Easily the most absurd example of this is the tendency to portray Hastert as the lone force behind the 2003 prescription-drug bill. Curiously, contemporaneous accounts all identify DeLay as one of the bill’s key tacticians. But subsequent Hastert profiles reduce DeLay to a mere foot-soldier in the speaker’s legislative blitzkrieg. “If history is any guide, Mr. Hastert will do what he must [to pass George Bush’s agenda]. That might mean twisting the arms of recalcitrant Republicans, as he did during the Medicare vote,” wrote The New York Times in 2005. “Mr. Hastert put the chamber in a kind of time warp, allowing the customary 15-minute roll-call vote to drag on for nearly three hours while he and the other leaders leaned on Republicans.” Franzen was actually in the Capitol building the night of the prescription-drug vote. He manages to mention DeLay exactly zero times in 1,200 words on the episode, but he depicts Hastert as a Bunyan-esque figure. “He could be seen towering over problem members, his face red, as he asked them for their vote,” goes one typical refrain.

Speaking of DeLay, the former majority leader is clearly the biggest hitch in all the counterintuitive Hastert-as-master-of-the-universe pieces, since DeLay was widely assumed to have run the House up to the day he abandoned his congressional seat. The way most profilers handle this detail is to acknowledge that DeLay used to be the guy who ran the House–until Hastert abruptly snatched the reins from him. Problem is, these profiles have appeared on at least an annual basis since Hastert ascended to the speakership. The only way to square them all is to assume that Hastert is continuously consolidating power, only to cede it to DeLay so that he can grab it back yet again in time for the next profile. The whole exercise turns out to be pretty exhausting.

To wit: A July 1999 profile in The Washington Post observed that “it did not take long for questions to arise about [Hastert’s] fitness for the job … But last week, Hastert was very much in control.” “I hope that now somebody will finally write that Denny Hastert is speaker of the House,” DeLay told the Post. Roll Call ran an article in January, 2001 under the headline, “Hastert’s power grows as delay’s influence wanes after two years on the job.” “Hastert has certainly emerged from DeLay’s shadow. A lot of people assumed he was DeLay’s puppet. … He’s moved on from that,” a former high-ranking GOP aide told the paper. The following year, Roll Call ran an article headlined “hastert asserts independence,” which opened as follows: “After establishing himself as a pragmatic Speaker who sought compromise with fellow GOP leaders during his first three years in the post, lately Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is showing an independent streak.” As late as January, 2005, The New York Times was publishing a piece called, “quietly but firmly, hastert asserts his power.” “Mr. Hastert–a former high school wrestling and football coach who has often been characterized as an affable sidekick to Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader–has emerged as a powerful force, the man Mr. Bush is counting on to enact his ambitious second-term agenda,” the Times reported.

Actually, there is one journalist–a certain dean of the Washington press corps, goes by the name of “Broder”–who believes Dennis Hastert has been the pre-eminent figure in the House pretty much as long as he’s been speaker. For Broder, the relevant question isn’t who controls the House, but how much power the Hastert juggernaut will amass before all is said and done. “Few seem to notice the existence–let alone the large and growing influence–of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert,” Dean Broder wrote on January 15, 2003. He went on to remark on Hastert’s “central role in the political and governmental life of this country” and warned that “if DeLay decided tomorrow to challenge Hastert, the Texan would be sent to the back benches.” Oops. …

Not long after FoleyGate began, The Wall Street Journal editorial page made a provocative point about the scandal’s root causes. “Today’s politically correct culture,” the Journal observed, gave senior Republicans “no grounds to doubt Mr. Foley merely because he was gay and a little too friendly in emails.” Since the editorial first appeared, this view has been roundly jeered by mainstream commentators. But I would like to make a concession to my friends on the right: Political correctness clearly did prevent the GOP from confronting what was an open secret in Washington. It’s just that the relevant open secret wasn’t about sexual orientation. It was about intelligence. For some reason it’s just not politically correct to call people dumb, particularly if they happen to be in positions of power, particularly if they happen to be Republicans. If you’re wondering how the GOP fell into such a tailspin, that might be the place to start.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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