In the Wake of a Scandal
Posted on June 2, 2015
(This originally appeared in The Hill)
How do you defend the indefensible? How do you justify the unjustifiable?
When it comes to the latest scandal involving my former boss, Denny Hastert, I really can’t.
This puts me in an awkward position. As his spokesman, I made my living defending Denny against all kinds of charges and attacks.
That’s what spokesmen do.
I first met Denny Hastert when I worked for Bob Michel, the longtime House minority leader.
Hastert was a Michel protégé. Both were Illinoisans, from abutting districts; both were pragmatic conservatives who appreciated the legislative process. When I was working for Bob, he had appointed Hastert to lead the charge against Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan, in the early 1990s.
I knew that he was a former coach, but with his love of early meetings, which he seemed to enjoy scheduling for his healthcare team, he seemed more like a farmer.
When Michel announced that he was going to retire, I decided to leave Washington once and for all, and I got a job working in Hastert’s district office. It was there that I got a chance to know the characters who made up Denny’s operation. They were good, solid, salt-of-the-earth people, the kind who got into politics for all the right reasons.
And Denny was like that, too. Sure, he was a congressman, and when he showed up at the district office, things certainly jumped more. There were constituents to meet, problems to be solved, meetings to be had. It was fun to see retail politics done by a guy who had deep connections to his community.
My time in Batavia, where his district office was located, was short-lived. The year was 1994, and change was in the air. Hastert was working to get Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) elected whip (Michel was supporting Pennsylvania’s Bob Walker), and Republicans seemed to have a chance to recapture the House for the first time in 40 years. Hastert told me that, if we won both the whip race and the majority, he wanted me to return to Washington.
We did, and I did, and my last chance to escape Washington’s gravitational pull was done. I worked for Hastert on the House floor during the Contract with America, and then I did something curious — the job to become DeLay’s communications director opened up, and I decided to go for it.
Hastert was disappointed, but in retrospect, it was the right decision. DeLay would become controversial in his own right, but when I worked for him, he was the hard-charging whip who could count votes with the best of them. DeLay and Hastert were a close team, and I was clearly the Hastert guy on the DeLay team. And it was there that I learned how to handle crisis communications.
I decided to leave Congress in the fall of the 1998, just as the whip was moving to impeach Bill Clinton. I never suspected that the guy I worked for in Batavia would someday become Speaker, and nobody could have predicted how quickly that day would come.
When Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston stepped aside as Speaker-elect, Hastert’s chief of staff came to my house and told me that I was coming back to work for the accidental Speaker. I don’t think Hastert was completely sold on the idea, given that I had previously left him to work for DeLay, but eventually, I was offered the job.
People forget what a mess the House of Representatives was back then, how the institution teetered on the edge of a complete breakdown.
Hastert didn’t necessarily know what he was doing (especially with the press), but he filled the breach at exactly the right time.
He must have known back then that he had skeletons in his closet, but he went forward anyway, not because he necessarily wanted the job but because his colleagues needed him.
And he proved to be right guy at the right time. He was a regular order Speaker, and he got big things done. He worked with President Clinton to provide empowerment zones to the inner city. He delivered a prescription drug benefit to the American people. He helped the next president, George W. Bush, set high education standards with No Child Left Behind.
He made some mistakes, no doubt, when he was Speaker. But he left behind a remarkable record of success.
Shocked is the word most used by everybody I know when it comes to latest revelations about my friend Denny Hastert. Saddened is the other word.