Questions abound around the indictment of Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois ? some are prurient, and others relate to policy. Leaving the inglorious details of the former to the scandal sheets, there's still a lot to ponder.
The outline is simple: Mr. Hastert, who became Speaker because everybody knew his closet was bare, is charged with two things: making a long series of bank withdrawals designed to evade detection under laws intended to catch terrorists and money launderers, and then lying about it to the FBI.
The indictment helpfully adds that he was amassing some $3.5 million into a fund to 'compensate and ensure the silence of' an individual who may have been subjected to misbehavior at the hands of Mr. Hastert, long ago, during his tenure as a high school teacher and wrasslin' coach. Later leaks suggest that the misconduct was same-sexual, and that his victim and was underage. If true, although that's some empty closet, it's not the stuff of the interesting inquiries.
Rather, first and foremost ? why was this case brought? Prosecutors always have to determine how best to manage their overstocked dockets ? what to charge, for which offenses, and how to handle those cases down the line. We would like to believe that there's proper public purpose guidance behind those choices ? especially when they appear to be relatively technical and divorced in time and substance for any wrongdoing.
Thus it is that few tears are shed for Al Capone, convicted of tax evasion, but culpable of so much more in a criminal career that's better described as a thirteen-year rampage. The complicit locals were unwilling to charge him, and the Feds were limited in their menu of possible crimes. Is l'Affaire Hastert really such a case?
The unknown details of the underlying incident are probably unsavory, just as they always are when teachers consort with their students. There's a serious abuse of power there, especially as regards youngsters who have not achieved the age of consent; the consequences for the victim can be tragically life-altering. Still, it seems unlikely that this could have been a pattern of predation and have remained so unknown, especially regarding a man whose life quickly became so public in the rough-and-tumble arenas of Illinois and national politics.
The staleness of these allegations also weighs against them. No victim has come forward at any time in the thirty-year interim. Small midwestern towns do hold their secrets, and crimes are charged as against The People of the State, rather than the victim. Still, Statutes of Limitations also exist for sound reasons, the underlying conduct occurred long ago, and I have to wonder about this prosecution's public purpose.
Clearly, that purpose cannot relate to the actual financial charges brought. The withdrawal pattern raised suspicion and was investigated to the satisfaction of the proper authorities ? clearly there was no terrorism or laundering afoot ? and even the apparent purpose of a kind of settlement of possible claims is not illegal. The case has the feel of a public shaming ? a Scarlet Letter to be affixed to the former Speaker's lapel, forever. So someone needs to tell us: why?
I have a few other questions, as well.
First, why do we tolerate a system in which a pol can leave office with a net worth of less than a million bucks, and then be discovered a decade later, doling-out several times that amount -- out of petty cash? After his tearful departure from the political scene, Mr. Hastert's behind-the-scenes lobbying career has netted him many, many millions.
Even the prospect, much less the fact, of such an ensuing career just has to incline a guy favorably toward the monied interests. The Washington revolving-door that allows such influence peddling badly needs reform. We could start by requiring a ten-year cooling-off period after leaving office, during which time an actual honest living would presumably have to be earned.
Second, if rhetorically, why ? oh, Why -- do we tolerate the ongoing venality of our national leaders? It may be lost in most headlines, here, that now of all three senior Republican leaders in the House that impeached the Democratic President for lying about the fact that he'd been diddling the help (an ingénue, but at least one who could consent legally, and with some enthusiasm), each had scandalously big bones rattling around in the back of the family-values cloakroom.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, the once-and-future Serious Presidential Candidate, carried-on affairs similarly and serially. Next-in-line Bob Livingston demurred from the office, concerned that his own extramarital pants-dropping proclivities might come to light. That left the Speaker's chair to Mr. Hastert, a very epitome of verisimilitude, at least until now. Clearly, politics self-selects for ego-centric extroverts, and Mr. Kissinger is correct about power as an aphrodisiac ? but why are there so few adults in the room, and why do We, the People, so often return these adolescents to the candy store?
I suppose I could also ask why, when we seem to have an actual Family Man in the White House, he's the subject of such scorn from those who purport to most value that quality, but it might be 'wise' to hold that 'why' for another day.