A Few Conservative Voices Still Speak for the Speaker

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

House Speaker Dennis Hastert woke up yesterday morning to find his Republican conservatives in mid-mutiny.

"Resign, Mr. Speaker," advised the Washington Times at the top of its editorial page. In the Mark Foley scandal, the conservative paper posited, Hastert either (a) "was grossly negligent" or (b) "deliberately looked the other way."

Hastert's loyal deputy, Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), told a hometown radio station that the blame was all Hastert's. "I believe I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of," Boehner said. "And my position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility."

Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), the man leading House Republicans' campaign efforts, was also blaming "supervisor" Hastert for failing to act earlier to protect boys in the congressional page program from Foley's overtures. "I heard something; I took it to my supervisor," Reynolds said.

Before long, the august National Review had found Hastert and his team guilty of "serious sins of omission," while the magazine's Larry Kudlow joined the mutiny and called Hastert "an ineffective leader."

In the last few days, Hastert, a genial former wrestling coach from Illinois, is proving the axiom devised by former senator/philosopher Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.): "One day you're the toast of the town, the next day you're toast."

Four months ago, Hastert was feted as the longest-serving Republican speaker, earning tributes from all segments of the party. "He's done a great job, and he's been a great partner to me and a great mentor to me," Boehner said then.

And now, he's a great fall guy, too. "The clerk of the House, who runs the page program, the Page Board -- all report to the speaker," Boehner declared yesterday.

It was time for Hastert to take action to put down the mutiny. So he called Rush Limbaugh. And Sean Hannity. And Hugh Hewitt. And Lars Larson. And Roger Hedgecock. Even Neal Boortz, who said Hastert should find a "better excuse" for his inaction on Foley. "We're going to do them all," said Hastert aide Ron Bonjean.

Limbaugh, taking Hastert's call early in the afternoon, got right down to business. "The Washington Times' admittedly conservative editorial page has asked for you to step down," he pointed out.

"Well, yeah, I'm not going to do that," Hastert said casually, as if the Washington Times had suggested he order grapefruit for breakfast.

Limbaugh set about making the case for Hastert. Democrats and the media, he said, are making the speaker look more "interested in holding the House rather than protecting children."

"Yeah" was the entirety of Hastert's reply.

"I like what you said yesterday," Limbaugh continued, when Hastert "asked for an investigation into who knew what when."

"I don't think you could ask anybody better than the FBI," Hastert concurred. Limbaugh encouraged Hastert to change the subject to the economy and national security. Hastert dutifully responded with a few remarks about the economy and national security.

Eventually, Limbaugh closed with the warning that Democrats and the media would press the issue "even though you've dealt with it, even though he's gone, even though the mistake has been corrected."

Hastert again agreed. "They're trying to put us on defense," he said.

If that was the goal, it seems to have worked. Even nudists were gloating about the Foley scandal, telling the St. Petersburg Times that the lawmaker had been "very hypocritical" in attacking their skinny-dipping. Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), according to the Deseret News, was driven to declare some of Foley's mannerisms "irritating," adding: "You don't need 'gaydar' to understand he has certain dispositions."

Even as Hastert was on the air with Limbaugh, ABC News was publishing more instant messages Foley had sent to former pages. Clearly, Hastert needed more help. Bush, traveling in California, told the cameras that Hastert "is a father, teacher, coach who cares about the children of this country."

When even that proved insufficient, Hastert turned at 5 p.m. to Hannity's radio show, "the last beacon of truth in a troubled time."

Hannity had spent two hours accusing the Democrats of "dirty tricks" and "hypocrisy" and taking issue with the Washington Times' call for Hastert's head.

"I was shocked at the Washington Times today," he told Hastert, then got down to the questioning. "As you said, this is all brand new to you as of Friday?"

"Right," Hastert agreed.

Hannity asked if Hastert's foes had the Foley messages but "sat on them for political reasons."

"I just think it's awful strange," the speaker agreed.

Hannity, invoking Democratic sex scandals involving then-Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds (1983), Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (1990) and President Bill Clinton (1998), asked: "Do you think there's a double standard?"

"Yes, it appears there's a double standard," the speaker agreed.

Hannity was not finished. "In all seriousness, how would you be responsible for what another congressman does on an instant message? How could you possibly know this kind of thing was going on?"

"We don't know," the speaker agreed.

Milbank is writing a book. Washington Sketch will appear on a reduced schedule until early next year.

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