"If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the president was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to wrestthe election of a new Speaker of the House, who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy."
—Professor Orin Kerr, Georgetown University law school
Gotta love our hypocritical, kinky, recklessly fucking politicians! Here's a little background on the latest national sex scandal for those of you who have lives and careers and may not have kept up: Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was never going to go down as one of the great figures who have held that job, like Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill, or even the flamboyant and mercurial Newt Gingrich.
Republicans were in a state of controlled panic back when they gave him the job in 1999. Newt, the first GOP speaker in, like, forever, had been forced out, thanks to erratic behavior, managerial and otherwise (screwing a young staffer who later became his third wife), and his failure to gain his party seats in the previous midterm elections.
His designated successor, Robert Livingston of Louisiana, then suddenly quit when Hustler's Larry Flynt revealed that Livingston had been having extramarital affairs with four — count 'em — four women, more or less at the same time.
This would never do, since Republicans were gearing up to impeach President Bill Clinton for squirting all over the blue dress of a willing White House intern. They needed someone clean and compliant, willing to do more or less whatever George W. Bush or the real power in Congress, Tom DeLay, wanted. The boring Hastert, a sloppily fat former high-school wrestling coach, seemed the logical choice. They did evidently ask him if he could "withstand the scrutiny."
He said yes, and went on to eight undistinguished years as speaker. (His troops did impeach Clinton, who was predictably acquitted by the U.S. Senate.) When Democrats took Congress back in 2006, he quit, and went on to be a lobbyist for a bunch of mainly obnoxious causes, such as ethanol, coal, and candy-flavored tobacco and e-cigarettes.
The only thing anyone remembered about his career was the so-called "Hastert rule," which says that whenever Republicans are in control, they shouldn't allow a vote on any bill not supported by a majority of Republicans, something his buddies in the Michigan Legislature still try to follow.
Then, a bombshell: Old Denny was indicted for structuring financial transactions "to avoid currency reporting requirements," and lying about it to federal investigators.
This was at first baffling, until the sordid details began to seep out. Apparently, Hastert had been taking large sums of cash out of his accounts, $50,000 at a crack, something that, after he did it more than a dozen times, caught the eye of bank officials. The FBI talked with Hastert, who apparently told them he didn't trust the banking system and just liked having big chunks of cash in his pockets. Highly believable, eh?
Well, now he's been indicted for avoiding bank reporting requirements and lying to the FBI; turns out, according to the feds, he was paying someone $3.5 million to keep quiet about his "prior misconduct." That certain someone lives in Yorkville, the small Illinois town where Hastert was a high-school wrestling coach from 1965 to 1981.
Soon, The New York Times and other news outlets were reporting that Hastert, who has socked away millions as a lobbyist, was paying hush money to a boy who says his teacher and coach inappropriately touched him back in the day.
Oh, Denny, Denny, Denny!
How all this sordid mess will play out is not clear. The hypocrisy involved in this whole mess is, clearly, thicker than Mount Rushmore. Hastert piously called for President Clinton's impeachment for making out with a young woman who was, after all, a legal adult and made it clear she wanted it.
But he had to know he was himself sitting on a ticking time bomb. Clearly, he was stupid and self-delusional ... just like pretty much everyone else.
But this is not about Republicans and Democrats, or one contemptible man. Instead, there's a far bigger issue here:
Simply, do we want our politics and government to be totally ruined by a destructive and hypocritical preoccupation with sex? Hastert is in many ways a poor example.
Assuming there is merit in the charges against him, he should definitely not only be exposed, but likely sent to prison. Nobody, and no system of ethics, can tolerate, forgive, or condone sexual abuse of a minor.
But what about politicians or other public figures who have affairs with consenting adults?
Once, the press totally ignored these things — John F. Kennedy was only one of many politicians who knew the press wouldn't expose his womanizing. Today, we play gotcha.
But does that make sense? Oddly, even as the country becomes more tolerant of different lifestyles, and same-sex marriage, we seem to have become more puritanical about our politicians, holding them to impossibly high standards.
Psst: Know how many people in the real world have at some point had sex with someone they later wish they hadn't?
The vast majority of them. Know how many people would rather not have the details of their sex lives aired in public?
Virtually all of them. Back in 1999, when Republican Speaker-designate Livingston resigned from Congress after his affairs became public, a New York Democratic congressman named Jerry Nadler protested:
"It is a surrender to a developing sexual McCarthyism," he said, a slippery slope that could destroy most people.
So here's what I suggest. Journalists adopt this ethical standard: Relationships with consenting adults, present and especially past, are nobody's business — except if they indicate public corruption. If Senator X is diddling Lobbyist Y and voting to send her corporation government contracts, expose him.
If Senator X is having an affair with a nurse in his hometown, leave them alone. Do not report gossip.
Criminal behavior — sexual harassment, abuse of minors or animals, forcing someone — should always be exposed.
Today, we seem more hung up on a prudish preoccupation with the sex lives of our leaders than was the case a century ago. We need to get off it, for our own damn good. Incidentally, back in early 1998, when the newspapers were full of stories about dried semen on a blue dress, there was a story in a magazine called Foreign Affairs that was a bit more urgent.
That story, largely ignored by the sperm-chasers, referred to a man named Osama bin Laden, who had tons of money and was training people to kill Americans.
Do you think we might have perhaps been better off if we'd paid more attention to Osama and less to Monica?
I imagine Jerry Nadler does. His district includes the land where the World Trade Center towers stood.
Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.