Transcript

Analysis: Hastert Press Conference

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, October 5, 2006; 2:45 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Oct. 5, at 2:45 p.m. ET to discusses House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)'s press conference and the latest fallout from the Foley scandal. The House Ethics Committee announced it will form a subcommittee to investigate possible impropriety between members of Congress and pages. Hastert has said he will not step down over his handling of the scandal.

The transcript follows.

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Monument, Colo.: How does Hastert's comments and answers to questions in any way solve his problems? I found his press conference and answers to questions to be wholly inadequate. This is especially when he suggests that somehow there were people with this information who leaked it out, i.e. media/Democrats. How does his performance stop the sinking ship? I'm amazed that he actually thought calling a press conference and getting everyone all interested and he basically said nothing.

Robert G. Kaiser: I tend to agree with you on all points. This press conference solved no problem that I am aware of. We know that Hastert had a gimmick in mind, he planned to announce that the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, would conduct some kind of investigation, but Democrats apparently wouldn't go along with that. So he really had nothing to offer.

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Washington, D.C.: So many conflicting accounts of what happened here. With all this, it's impossible to believe that someone high up in the House leadership didn't drop the ball here.

I have to wonder if their handling of this would have been so cavalier if Foley had been a Democrat.

As for the argument that they didn't go after Foley because he was gay, that's fairly unsupportable. Republicans actually gain seats the more they beat up on gays rhetorically, so I find it hard to believe they'd pass up a chance to gay bash. Unless, of course, it meant losing a seat in Congress.

Robert G. Kaiser: You said it! But if you keep reading the stories carefully, you'll get the general gist, which I think is somewhat clear already: People in what we might call the chain of command in the House leadership who heard untoward things about Foley didn't do very much about them.

As to the idea that the Republicans held off because they didn't want to be accused of gay bashing--well, ask a gay friend or relation what he/she makes of that.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Kirk Fordham along with Republican lawmakers told Hastert and his office about Foley's pedophilic emails - but Hastert's office says that never happened...

Do we need lie detectors? How long before the cover-up is outed?

Thanks!

Robert G. Kaiser: You've gone to the heart of the matter. Fordham's testimony is key. I will take this opportunity to make a journalistic confession of sorts; in today's stories, the NY Times and USA Today got more detail out of Fordham than we did. So both those papers quote him as saying he had talked about Foley's harassment of pages to Scott Palmer, Hastert's chief of staff. When we talked to him yesterday, Fordham only said he had talked to senior Hastert aides. However, the key fact is in our story, and I'll quote it:

"Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, said in a statement: 'What Kirk Fordham said did not happen.'"

So someone is lying.

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Dallas, Tex.: Does it now make any difference whether Speaker Hastert resigns? In other words, has enough damage been done already that he may become irrelevant to whether the Republicans can control the House in the upcoming elections?

Robert G. Kaiser: I thought about this question walking to work this morning. Can we imagine voters who plan to vote for a Republican candidate for the House today, but would switch to the Democrat if Hastert were to resign? Maybe. What about a non-ideological Republican who wants to believe the best about his/her party, so offers the benefit of the doubt. Then the Speaker resigns (if he WERE to resign) and that person might think geez, there really was something bad going on here at the top, I'm not going to reward these guys with my vote, I'm switching...

Might there be a million such voters? OR a thousand? I doubt it.

No, generally speaking, I think Hastert in office or Hastert out of office -- or, the most likely change really, Hastert announcing he won't stand for reelection to the Speakership next year IF the Republicans win the House -- wouldn't make much difference.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: How does the Republican handling of this "scandal" compare to comparable episodes in the past?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a good question. We might summarize the Republican response so far as unsatisfying, precisely because of the point raised in the previous question, or the one before that I've already forgotten, sorry. Which is that we all have amazingly conflicting, confused versions of what happened here. Rep. Reynolds, chairman of the GOP campaign committee, offers one account; Rep. Boehner, Majority Whip, another; Speaker Hastert a third. Various aides also provide conflicting versions.

Does it appear that some are being untruthful, or are withholding all they know? Yes it does--I hope that isn't an editorial judgment! Any skeptical reporter would have that reaction, I think. Which doesn't mean I know what happened; I don't.

The Republicans have left themselves vulnerable to the sort of scandal torture we have seen so often in the past, one revelation at a time, new wounds for every news cycle.

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Washington, D.C.: Whether Hastert resigns or not may not matter with voters, per se. But doesn't his not resigning keep that part of the story alive longer and possibly add to the damage, i.e. anger by Christian Conservatives and their leaders who called for his head?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sure it could.

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Montreal, Canada: I understand why Hastert and the Republicans would question the timing of this story, but why are they so upset at the media.

The simple fact is because ABC went public, Foley's access to Pages ended. Everyone agrees this is a good thing, but is anyone giving any credit to Ross for breaking the story, or to ABC for having the sense to run with it?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think a lot of people have given such credit. Brian Ross's exclusives sometimes remain exclusive, as we say in the newsroom--meaning they don't fully check out sometimes, so others don't repeat them. But this was a good clean scoop, and both he and ABC seem to have handled it very well.

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Long Beach, Calif.: How long before the media points out Hastert's possible crime? His office staff claims that he was never warned yet multiple republican lawmakers, not to mention Foley's aid say they warned him?

Isn't the coverup a crime? Aiding and abetting? Accomplice after-the-fact? What is the law here on hushing up pedophilic activity?

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez, I'm not sure we have any evidence yet that an actual crime was committed, do we?

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Alexandria, Va.: If Speaker Hastert were to step down, how would his replacement be chosen? Would the full House have to vote on it the next time the House is in session or is the Majority Leader automatically promoted?

With this episode, what will happen in the Republican caucus in December? Do you see a ground swell to dump the current leadership no matter what happens to the GOP in November?

Robert G. Kaiser: The full House elects the Speaker. In modern times, this has always meant that the candidate put forward by the majority party becomes the speaker.

If, as seems entirely possible, the Democrats hold the majority after the voting in November, then of course Hastert's speakership will be over. If the Republicans have squeaked back in control, I would expect serious anxiety attacks in Republican ranks, for the sadly simple reason that the Republicans will realize that between 2006 and 2008, Iraq can get a lot worse, and their standing in the country can deteriorate further. So there will be tension, and there could be moves against the current leadership.

But I think it is far too early to speculate with any specificity, because this Foley case is a classic example of all of us not knowing what we don't know--yet.

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Bowie, Md.: Is there any polling data how much Joe and Jane Voter care about this; or is it just a bunch of "inside Washington?"

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, there's a brand new poll, out this afternoon, and I've just asked washingtonpost.com to try to link to it here. It's from the Pew Center for the People and the Press. I just found it quickly myself,you can see the poll at

http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=290

It says that the Foley story isn't having much impact at all. I'm not surprised. This new survey says Iraq remains the biggest issue by far.

Of course the Foley story matters enormously in one district: Foley's, now a certain Democratic pickup, I'd bet. That reduces from 16 to 15 the number of seats the Democrats need to win to regain control of the House.

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Seattle, Wash.: Hastert was the safe second choice way back in 1998 and hasn't seemed to do much of anything in the years since.

Do you know if there is any undercurrent in the House that's actually happy Hastert might be on his way out? I'm certainly not a fan of the GOP, but it seems like now presents a good chance to regroup and start fresh.

Robert G. Kaiser: See answer above. Yes, there is a lot of disgruntlement with Hastert. Until he left in disgrace, Tom DeLay was the dominant figure in the House leadership, and he has not been fully replaced. Hastert is a relatively passive leader most of the time.

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washingtonpost.com: Iraq Looms Large in Nationalized Election: Congressional Race Unchanged After Foley's Resignation

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Washington, D.C.: I have friends with Hill experience who downplay Foley's $100,000 contribution to the NRCC, saying that such contributions are commonplace among Congressmen. Is that true? Did Foley make any prior contributions?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't have the details at my fingertips, but yes, such contributions are now not unusual. I don't think the country has focused on how much money is now in play in campaign giving.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Robert, has this story also exposed the limitations of newspapers? Even online papers such as yours are having a hard time keeping up with bloggers and the television reporting this changing story minute by minute. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I'm not aware of any blog that has produced a really meaningful scoop on this story, are you? And today we had a genuine scoop of our own, the story By Jonathan Weisman and Juliet Eilperin on the sexually explicit i-messages that Foley sent some pages. I hope we can link to it here.

This is a classic feeding frenzy, as Larry Sabato I think it was dubbed this kind of story some years ago. But it's the best news organizations, the venerable mainstream media, that is most likely, most of the time, to produce really revelatory new stories.

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washingtonpost.com: Lawmaker's Intentions Appear Clear In Exchanges , ( Post, Oct. 5, 2006 )

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Atlanta, Ga.: Why is Hastert focusing on the Page Program instead of on what actually went wrong? Isn't that a little like blaming the victim?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I guess it is.

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RE: Polls: OK, but isn't the big Repub. concern that the Christian right, which is usually a key part of GOP turn-out, stays home on Election Day?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, that is a major concern. And I can't imagine that Hastert's performance this afternoon ameliorated that situation.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Well, I've pretty much answered all the questions that have come in, at least all that seemed on point. And there weren't very many--many fewer than I usually get in these sessions. There's no science in this, of course, but it suggests to me that this media circus hasn't aroused very many people, at least not yet.

So thanks for visiting today. We'll do it again soon.

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