Republicans on Capitol Hill keep telling everyone how terribly shocked they are by the tawdry tale of Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House indicted last week for violations of federal money-laundering statutes in an effort to cover up alleged sexual abuse of a male high-school student many years ago.
Long upheld as a paragon of Midwestern conservative values, Hastert represented a suburban Illinois district and became his party’s longest-serving speaker. Like Newt Gingrich, who preceded him in that post, Hastert avidly prosecuted the impeachment of Bill Clinton for trying to conceal an extramarital affair. Unlike Gingrich, whose own serial adulteries became a national joke, Hastert was evidently never suspected of any such “misconduct,” as the indictment described it.
“I don’t see how this didn’t come up on the radar before,” said a former Hastert aide following the release of his indictment. “It’s sort of beyond belief.”
But is it truly beyond belief, at this very late date, to learn that yet another moralizing politician or preacher was always just a hypocrite? Not unless you haven’t been paying attention for the past two decades or so. Or not you’ve been mesmerized into believing the propaganda that claims only one party — the GOP — represents “family values.”
A decade ago, Hastert was hailed as a partisan symbol of superior virtue, notably in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s “The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America,” which gleefully predicted endless victories for the Republicans and doom for the Democrats. Written by a pair of British Tories who then held top positions at The Economist magazine, that work invidiously contrasted then-Speaker Hastert with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, his counterpart on the other side of the aisle — and described their districts as symbols of red and blue America.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge waxed on lyrically and at great length in praise of Coach Denny and “Hastertland,” while they cast a censorious gaze upon Nancy and “Pelosiville,” also known as San Francisco or in their words, “the capital of gay America.” Their description of Hastert — “a fairly straightforward conservative: antiabortion, anti-gay marriage” — rings with irony today.
So does their depiction of Pelosi’s urban constituency as “a peculiar mix of blue bloods and gays, dotcom millionaires and aging hippies,” set against the “resolutely ‘normal’ ” people represented by Hastert, who “think of themselves as typical Americans.”
Key to understanding the two districts and therefore American politics, according to the authors, were differing attitudes toward “the importance of family life,” orthodox religion, and “social disorder.” In Hastertland, churches and families were growing, streets were clean, and vagrancy eliminated — and in Pelosiville exactly the reverse, with secularism rampant, bums everywhere and even an outpost of the Church of Satan.
“Looking at ‘Pelosiville’ and ‘Hastertland,’ ” they concluded, “it is not difficult to see why American politics has shifted to the Right.”
As it turned out, “The Right Nation” was mostly wrong, about the fates of the two major parties and much else besides. But what was most wrong was the insinuation that Republicans stand for more elevated values than Democrats, or that conservatives are morally purer than liberals. To take their own example, we now know what we know about Hastert — and we also know that Pelosi, mother of five, grandmother of eight, married more than 50 years to the same husband, advocate of gay marriage and reproductive rights, is today far more credible as a symbol of “family values” and family life.
None of this should be surprising, with all due respect to the shocked, shocked, shocked Republicans. In 2003, after Hastert already had ascended to third in line from the presidency, I reviewed the endless ranks of right-wing moral mountebanks — the cheating celebrity evangelists, the homophobic gay politicians, the lecherous legislators, and others too raunchy to mention here — in one chapter of a book called “Big Lies.” I included many stories about Hastert’s House colleagues, partying amid their pursuit of Clinton; some were amusing, some quite depressing. Of course, I didn’t know about “Coach Denny” back then.
But with or without his sad story, the conclusion would be the same: Liberals “care about families and children just as much as conservatives do — and that their more tolerant, humane policies do more to help families than the selfish and self-righteous approach of the Republican right.”
What should have changed by now, whenever conservatives start to cluck about their rectitude and piety, is whether anybody still listens.