June 9. The cameramen shooting the breeze near the entry to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse meant that something big was happening. It turned out to be the arraignment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The 73-year-old Republican was due in court to face charges that he evaded banking laws while withdrawing large sums of money, ostensibly hush-money to an individual who was blackmailing him. More broadly, in the court of public opinion, Hastert stands accused of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1960s, when he was a high-school teacher and wrestling coach in Yorkville. a place that many of us have never heard of.
Yorkville is the county seat of Kendall Country, Illinois. Yorkville had a population of 6,189 at the time of the 2000 census. Dennis Hastert was by far the most prominent figure associated with this town or with its high school, where he taught until 1981. He taught history and government, and coached a championship wrestling team. He’d had a rural upbringing and was a graduate of the conservative Christian school, Wheaton College.
Wheaton College was proud of Dennis Hastert, so proud that it named the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy after him. Since his indictment, the College has changed the name of the center, whose mission is to advance “the redeeming effects of the Christian worldview.” Hastert is no longer an exemplar of Wheaton’s core mission, which is to “serve Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom through . . . programs that educate the whole person to build the church and benefit society worldwide.” Instead, his behavior early in life was such that it had the power to terrify him all these decades.
What’s astonishing is that Hastert had the temerity to seek political office. It takes a special person to wade in to the glare while determined to protect buried parts of the past. Without betraying that anything in his past was awry, he went on to win favor, building on the good opinion that he’d secured in these small, face-to-face societies. He’s been married since 1973 and has two sons.
Now here is the same man, four decades on. For all this time, his life has essentially been a fraud. We citizens have given him honor and accolades and paid his salary, smoothing the way of someone who, accusers say, ruined the life of at least one boy. “I am the victim,” Hastert is claiming; meanwhile, the records of every conservative institution he was affiliated with are being expunged. They’ll have to dig deep before every trace of his name is gone.
As scandal swirls around the former Speaker, journalists’ excitement only grows. Corruption is so common in Illinois, so much a part of its political tradition as to generate its own junkies, superlatives, and statistics. Will Hastert’s trial be bigger and more sensational than that of convicted former governor Rod Blagojevich? Will it last longer? Cost the taxpayers more? The media is juiced with anticipation. Here are new grounds to be jaded. Late-night jokes will bury Hastert; editorialists will pen his rest-in-peace.