The so-called “accidental” Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has long lived on reputation of being a good old boy. He is a quiet man by nature who worked hard to bring value to his home district, which happens to cover the area where I live.
As such, and as a United States Congressman, he made appearances in his district giving talks about political doings at the state and national level. In the late 1980s I happened to be the person who booked speakers for our local Rotary Club. When it became evident Hastert was available to talk to our club, I was urged to make contact and have him come to our breakfast meeting.
Hastert was introduced by the club president and spoke about a few issues of importance at the time. George H.W. Bush was President of the United States and the post-Reagan Republican world was trying to make sense of their newfound sense of power. It wasn’t going all that well, but you’d never know from the way the party continued to talk about its fiscal and social exploits.
At the end of his talk Hastert invited our Rotary members to ask some questions. There was one issue in which I was keenly interested. I waited my turn to ask about some environmental legislation the government was considering. This was during an era when there started to be some serious blowback toward green legislation. In particular there were concerns about the economic impact of so-called environmentalists. That term had become one of derision by those on the political Right––who accused environmentalists of putting the needs of the earth before human interests. But in fact there were arguments against environmentalism from both the economic wing and religious wing of the Republican party. Fiscal conservatives claimed environmentalism was too costly for business while religious conservatives catered to a wing of Christianity that said human beings had dominion over the earth and could do whatever they wanted with it. As a result of these accusations, environmentalism was becoming one of the dividing issues between Republicans and Democrats.
It wasn’t always that way. President Nixon, a devout Republican, had established the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for good reason. In the early 1970s when Nixon was President, environmental pollution had turned America into a dangerous mess. Rivers caught fire from pollution and pesticides were causing species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon to disappear from their natural ranges. Passing laws for environmental protection was the right thing to do and a Republican thing to do dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, who led the way in establishing the National Park System.
But the arc from considerate Republican stewardship to a party more concerned with extraction than conservation was taking a hard right turn in the late 1980s. Which is perhaps why Dennis Hastert felt comfortable outwardly laughing at my sincere question about environmental legislation. He looked around the room and laughed when I brought up the subject. And people laughed with him.
I was shocked. Was I missing something? Was the environment a joke in some people’s minds? Apparently so.
Rotary redux: What goes around…
The next time Dennis Hastert was invited to our Rotary Club to speak, I was the President of the club. You can imagine that I was not so eager to have Hastert speak this time around. Yet his political stature had begun to rise, and his fans were many. While not yet Speaker of the House, the name Dennis Hastert was held in high regard. His tenure in office was growing.
But when it came time to introduce Dennis Hastert to our Rotary Club, I kept the introduction clipped and brief. “Good morning Rotary members,” I said. “Our speaker this morning is Dennis Hastert.”
No protocol. No long list of titles relative to his position in government. I skipped all that jazz. My fellow Rotary members were angry. “How could you show him such disrespect?” they demanded to know.
I explained exactly why his introduction was so brief. “He did not show me respect as a human being last time he came here to speak. And I don’t care what someone has in terms of a title in front of his name,” I responded. “Basic respect comes first. And he didn’t show it to me.”
When Dennis Hastert ascended to the podium of national leadership I watched his conduct carefully. At one point there appeared a photo on the front cover of the Chicago Tribune. Now Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert stood proudly with a bunch of Republican leaders including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and a couple other GOP legislators signing a piece of law that essentially limited women’s rights. There they were, a gaggle of powerful white men proudly signing away the rights of half the population. It made me sick.
The ideological approach of that entire era of politicians made me suspicious of every motive they put forward. I had learned from direct experience that men like Dennis Hastert can have a dismissive approach to anyone that does not agree with their doctrine or politics. When those ideologues swept into power with the stolen election of George W. Bush in 2000, it was evident to me what would come next. Abuse of power. The Good Old Boys had control and they weren’t going to pussyfoot around trying to do what they wanted and to get what they thought they deserve.
Only their agenda repeatedly and predictably failed. Without consideration of basic human rights, the actions of Republican ideologues flout the Constitution, ignore the clear call to considerate governance and indeed, undermine respect for the American ideal around the world.
It was not just circumstance. One failure after another took place; from 9/11 to Katrina, the torturous war in Iraq to the fall of the economy. The policies of these men produced nothing but tragedy and dismissive excuses for why it was somehow not their fault. Yet you could still sometimes see the harsh expressions and catch traces of the bitter laughter on faces of men such as George W. Bush, Dennis Hastert and Donald Rumsfeld as they continued forcing their agenda on America.
Perhaps even disturbing was the lack of apparent laughter (and less a shred of compassion) from men such as Dick Cheney, whose sneering and snarling demeanor was not even fit for public consumption lest the public actually catch on to the nasty nature of the men operating behind the scenes.
Perhaps the only thing that can make a mercenary laugh is the paycheck they collect for accomplishing their task, and then they only share that smile and laugh among associates who are “in on the joke.” That certainly seemed to be the case with Cheney, whose business interests in Halliburton suddenly made billions from the war in Iraq. But the cynicism seemed pervasive in all branches of government it seemed, especially the likes of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose title of “Supreme Court Justice” seemed almost ironic as he dispensed clearly partisan rulings and opinions that seemed to fly in the face of Constitutional common sense. Meanwhile he laughed off his critics.
Sure, there are interesting types among the Democrats as well. People love to point to the likes of President Bill Clinton as an example of a corrupt and laughing politician. But how ironic it is that the three Republican Speakers of the House who pushed for Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky turned out to have sexual secrets and philandering histories of their own?
Clinton admittedly was an embarrassment to America in his sexual dalliances, but he was certainly not the first or last President or powerful politician caught with his hands down someone else’s pants. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his girlfriends on the side yet found the time and courage to lead America out of the Depression and through the massive travails of World War II. JFK was another Democrat whose lust for women was well known yet he also seemed to transcend his personal failures with a will for social justice and equal rights. He envisioned the space program that beat the Soviets in putting a man on the moon. And what killed Kennedy? A secret cabal of hateful CIA agents and mobster laughing into their collars as they looked the other way while the motorcade came to a stop and a hail of bullets caromed from every direction.
The same hateful secret government killed Martin Luther King, Jr., another womanizer it turns out, the very same way. Assassinations in the name of secret ideology.
Forgiveness and gay thoughts
All this begs the question: What should be forgiven in our public figures? What is the acceptable balance between kept secrets and privacy? Does it matter what people do in the bedroom if they otherwise conduct themselves well in public and obey the law?
That’s where Dennis Hastert and some others run aground. So vital are their kept secrets to their public persona they cannot afford to let those secrets out. So they move money around and make payments to risky past relationships to keep them quiet.
In Hastert’s case there is the double Republican indemnity of having possibly engaged in a same-sex relationship. That’s considered a political liability among social conservatives, who would rather deny the fact of homosexuality as a normal state of human consciousness than accept the social change of same-sex marriage and other equal rights for gay people. So it wasn’t just that Hastert had a sex scandal in his past. It was allegedly a gay sex scandal, quite possibly with a minor, that made vital for him to obscure his past and maintain his image as a devout Republican.
And how sad yet necessary it all is because people cannot understand, accept or be accepted for who they are. So they create this fashioned image of who they think they have to be. Then they engage in every possible ruse to protect that fake reality.
How liberating it will be one day when the stigmas attached to homosexuality are removed. Then people can live without being restricted by their sexual orientation. It still would not excuse the potential actions of pedophiles who take advantage of minors for sexual purposes, for that is a distinct and separate issue from homosexuality. The two are not necessarily linked.
It seems in the end they all have their secrets, these politicians. So what can we learn from how they conduct themselves? And how can America protect itself from the hypocrisy evident in the conduct of men and women of power who claim to represent the best of America and morality while carrying out thefts of public trust and treasure?
The answer is that we should never accept the public face of politics. Ever. Even the so-called Great Communicator Ronald Reagan, who presented himself as the affable father of morality and American virtue, let his administration’s actions spin out of control with the Iran-Contra affair. At least Reagan stepped forward to confess, which is more than men like George W. Bush have had the courage to do even though his minions led a military extortion and torture regime in Iraq.
Just remember that even when you ask relevant questions of individuals like these, they may still be laughing at you. They may appear smug and proficient in the ways of politics, but we continue to learn that so many of these people are hiding dark secrets in their past and present. They laugh at you because they don’t want you to know these secrets, and don’t believe you have a right to do so. So they laugh it off, as if you’re the stupid one. And if they get enough power and media on their side, they indeed appear to be in control of everything they do. But dark secrets have a way or emerging in ways that the most protective over souls cannot imagine.
It is often the case that the repressed choose to persecute and prosecute the things they hate most in themselves. That’s why we find religious zealots hollering from the pulpit about sex while they conduct illicit sexual affairs with their own parishioners. It’s why we find hardline politicians passing anti-gay legislation even as they engage in sex with secretly gay lovers or prostitutes.
All these ruses are an elaborate attempt at self-denial and protection. It is the also the most common ruse of power that those who want to play along should always be in on the joke. So there are even secret societies that create these dark secrets and hold people hostage their whole lives on threat that they will be exposed if they ever tell on another person. It’s a sick, dark world that exists apart from the honest way you and I want to live.
Jokesters and justice
We’ve seen what happens in history when the jokesters are exposed as frauds. They grow angry and seek to punish. That’s why Herod called for Jesus. He wanted to either witness the real secret of power or else make a mockery of that which threatened him.
Often this pattern of hypocritical rage gets carried to its illogical conclusion. People cry out to the Lord, “Where is they justice?” But God sees the spectrum of human foible in a fuller context. He expects us to be wiser than to trust angry fools so long, and to let them rule over us.
That is the weary world God wants us to overcome. Men like Dennis Hastert start out by laughing in our faces as if our questions were all a joke, and as if accountability were a humorous fiction.
It can be tiring to be vigilant toward such dismissive leaders who lie to us and laugh in our faces. They keep coming at us, and with increasingly powerful fervor driven by media that echo and amplify their voices. The laughter of their ideology drowns out the earnest inquiries of the curious and sincere. A certain madness takes over, and people begin siding with the madness because it seems like the only sane thing to do given its popularity and its promises.
But you should know that this madness is not the righteous way. These were the same voices that yelled “Crucify Him!” and laughed and scowled at a man nailed to the cross, whose sacrifice was intended to instruct on the ways of truth in the face of power and mockery.
The weary world accepts that such ends are inevitable, that no matter what we do, tomorrow is the another day for crucifixion of hope, love and political honesty. We see it every day, and the weary world and Dennis Hastert are illustrating the dangers of blind trust and mockery of those who are not in on the secret, which is that all human beings are flawed, and no amount of cynical laughter and power-brokering politics can hide that fact.