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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Dennis Hastert’s Lonely Downfall

Unlike other scandal-plagued politicians, the former Speaker seems to be missing his family

Dennis Hastert leaving his arraignment on June 9.  Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

When former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, 73, did his perp walk to arraignment in downtown Chicago last week, he looked hunched, hulking yet somehow sickly thin, with eyes squinting behind thick glasses. Most of all, he looked utterly alone. Jean, his wife of 42 years, was not with him, and neither were their grown sons: Joshua, 40, a college-town music-store-owner turned Washington lobbyist, and Ethan, 37, a partner at Mayer Brown and failed 2010 Republican congressional candidate for his father’s old seat.

It was quite a contrast to other scandal-plagued politicians facing charges—and cameras—often surrounded by their families. Indeed, when it comes to the Hastert family, don’t expect a new episode in the growing oeuvre of sad press conferences by politicians caught in embarrassing sex scandals dragging along their devastated, humiliated wives (to recall a few, Eliot/Silda Spitzer, Bill/Hillary Clinton, and Anthony Weiner/Huma Abedin).

Jean Hastert’s absence, perhaps, was not much of a surprise. She has long been missing from the political scene. She married Denny in 1973—they met as teachers at Yorkville High, the school at which Hastert allegedly sexually abused one or more students—but was once described by Jonathan Franzen in a New Yorker profile of her husband as possessing a “vocal lack of interest” in Washington that “verges on disdain.”

She was also an unusually private “wife of” who would show up in DC now and then, but was best known for being unknown. She stuck to rural-turned-exurban Yorkville and what she loved best: being a gym teacher for 33 years, mostly at the K-3 level, a mom, gardener, golfer. In 1999, shortly after her husband became Speaker, and shortly before she retired, she told Chicago Tribune education writer Casey Banas, “I just like being a gym teacher in Yorkville.”

Her husband quit teaching (history, government, and economics) and coaching (wrestling and football) after 16 years in 1980 because he couldn’t afford to support his family. He entered politics, going first to Springfield as a state representative and then to Washington in 1987, representing Illinois’s 14th district. He spent the last eight years of his time in Washington as Speaker before retiring in 2007. At every step he sought Jean’s permission, and she gave it, sort of, telling him, in effect, if that’s what you want, do it, but I’ll see you when you come home on weekends. I’m staying put and so are the boys.

While in Congress, Hastert lived, Tuesday through Friday, with his two top aides in a DC townhouse he owned near the Capitol. 

I interviewed him in late 2010, after he had wasted no time in trading on his Congressional status to become a lobbyist—“senior advisor, government and law strategy group” for the DC law firm Dickstein Shapiro. He told me that he lived during his weeks in Washington in a hotel that he declined to name. When I asked about his wife, he said, “Jean always stayed back in Illinois. We have grandchildren and family and that’s what she’s into.” 

Hastert, in fact, has always demonstrated a public loyalty to his wife and his sons—who, in contrast to Jean Hastert, owe their professional lives mostly to their father.

Knowing that, I half expected to see one or both of them holding their father’s arm as he walked the gauntlet of reporters shouting unspeakably embarrassing questions. Former congressman and transportation secretary Ray LaHood, one of Hastert’s closest friends in the House, told me in a telephone call yesterday that the family isn’t talking, so he’s uncertain about how they are dealing with this “totally stunning” news. But, he said, he knows that Hastert is extremely close to his sons and also seemed to have a loving relationship with his wife. (The LaHoods and the Hasterts traveled the world together on codels—taxpayer financed congressional delegation trips.) That Hastert went alone to his arraignment, LaHood said, just speaks to the utter sadness and confusion of the “situation.” 

As a lobbyist, Hastert worked on, among other specialties, technology issues. Piggybacking on that, his older son, Joshua, hit Washington soon after Denny became Speaker in 1999. Voila! The pierced-tongued owner of a record store in DeKalb called Seven Dead Arson became a lobbyist focusing on technology and defense issues. Josh started his new gig, working for mp3.com’s lobbyist who had been an aide to former House Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel, a close colleague of Josh’s father.

Josh then moved to a small firm, Federal Legislative Associates, that lobbied on tech issues. Moving on up, he was soon hired by lobbying firm, Podesta Mattoon, headed by two old friends of his father’s—Tony Podesta, a fellow Illinoisan, and, with Hastert, a student government leader in the 1960s, and Dan Matoon, a close friend/advisor of Hastert’s who ran his first congressional campaign. In 2006, while his father was still holding the Speaker’s gavel, Josh was hired by Google as part of a team of Podesta Matton lobbyists. 

In a conversation with Jonathan Franzen for The New Yorker, Josh held up his father as a model—they both love small business—and, as a lobbyist, he told Franzen, he’d be helping “smaller defense contractors…who are taking on the Big Four contractors.” (Josh would later become a registered lobbyist for Lockheed Martin.) He had promised not to lobby his father but didn’t extend the promise to other congressmen. “I never introduce myself as ‘Joshua Hastert, son of the speaker,’” he told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet. He didn’t have to. A website promoting his skills touted his “long-standing relationships with numerous offices on Capitol Hill and in the administration.”

The younger son, Ethan, ran unsuccessfully in a Republican primary to reclaim his father’s congressional seat—which had gone to Democrat Bill Foster in a special election after Hastert quit Congress in 2007. But Ethan, then 31, made the mistake of skipping the Springfield step his father had taken and was rejected by voters as entitled and not ready. He lost to Tea Party favorite Randy Hultgren, 43, a man who had spent a decade in the Illinois General Assembly.

He failed in his bid through no fault of the father’s. The former Speaker was there every step of the way for his son. Hastert’s friend and predecessor as Speaker, Newt Gingrich, came to the district to campaign for Ethan, raise money for him, and endorse him. Out-of-state PACs and personal contributions from the likes of Kevin McCarthy and Mike Pence and Donald Rumsfeld poured in. (Ethan enjoyed the services of his father’s former fundraiser, Lisa Wagner.) When Ethan went to DC with the rest of his family in 2009 for the unveiling of the former Speaker’s portrait, he spent “much of his time hitting the fundraising circuit with his father,” including one event at Dickstein Shapiro. 

During the campaign, Ethan told voters that he “grew up watching my father serve the district and spent a lot of time around him.” An opponent, Jeff Danklefsen, who eventually dropped out of the Republican primary, complained to an AP writer: “His father has gotten people to throw their support at his son. …. Clearly, his father is pulling the strings.” Ethan himself said that his father offers “invaluable” advice because “he’s been around the block a couple of times himself….” 

Ethan noted that he conferred “at length” [Roll Call, 4/21/09] with his father before getting in the race. He told a reporter for the Chicago Daily Herald, that his father had reminded him that “it’s a rough-and-tumble game. But I grew up with it, and I know that.” 

On a sad election night, Denny Hastert was at his son’s side. “I’m proud of Ethan, and whatever happens, I’m still proud,” Hastert was quoted as saying in a Sun-Times article.

Like his older brother, Ethan has drawn heavily on his father’s friends in high places. Soon after graduating with a business degree from the University of Illinois in 2000, he landed a spot on George W. Bush’s transition team and then went to work for his dad’s long-time friend and fishing buddy, Vice President Dick Cheney, as a special assistant to Cheney’s COS Scooter Libby. 

During the period he worked for Libby, from January 2001 to May 2002, Ethan, then 22, was arrested by the DC police, but not taken into custody, on DUI charges. His father called the incident “regrettable,” but, “as always, Ethan enjoys my love and full support in the face of this difficult situation.” 

Although Ethan, the father of four young children, is more conservative than his father—he said often that he ran for Congress to rein in the ballooning deficits that occurred, it so happened, during his father’s time as Speaker—the two men are extremely close. Denny Hastert has often spoken proudly of his Luxembourg roots; Ethan represents the country as honorary counsel. Both father and son were Mitt Romney delegates in 2012.

So it is all the more striking to see Denny Hastert so alone right now. The shocking multi-count federal indictment went viral on May 28—not on sexual abuse charges (the statute on that has long run out), but on charges of skirting banking laws in withdrawing hush money, some $1.7 million pre-indictment to buy silence from “Individual A,” and lying about the withdrawals to the FBI. Within days, hours even, the institutions with which Hastert has been associated during his career—from his law firm to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to his beloved wrestling championship (his Yorkville High team won the Class A Illinois state championship in 1976 and a competition is named for him)—couldn’t wait to scrub clean his name and his image.

Jean Hastert is long retired from teaching, and in some ways less hurt by these charges that it seems no one saw coming. But the sons’ futures, as unfair as it might be, will likely be seriously hurt. Being the son of Denny Hastert at a K Street lobbying firm or a Chicago law firm has turned from huge advantage to disadvantage. A name that once opened doors will now close them. In endorsing his opponent in the 2010 primary, the Chicago Daily Herald called Ethan a man who “could be a rising star in the Republican Party someday…” No more.

The former Speaker of the House and third in line to the presidency was profoundly alone at his arraignment, and, my guess, will be alone as the court procedures and dirty details keep coming.

No matter how it ends, Hastert seems already, in a way, sentenced, at least figuratively, to solitary confinement.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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