To the extent that the American public has any image of him at all, House Speaker Denny Hastert seems to be an avuncular presence in an otherwise thuggish town, the good cop to Tom DeLay's bad one, the gavel rather than the hammer. But seeming more nuanced than DeLay is about as low a bar as a person could ever clear, and over the past month the speaker of the House hasn't even done that. In fact, Hastert has engaged in the kind of slander that should prompt his colleagues to censure him.

The particular object of Hastert's ire is George Soros, the hedge-fund billionaire and champion of political pluralism and democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Soros is also a fierce critic of the president, and the largest individual donor to the Democratic "527" groups this year. For which reason, Hastert has decided to go after Soros with allegations the speaker will not and cannot support, but for which he won't apologize either.

In an interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" on the day before the Republican National Convention, Hastert said, "You know, I don't know where George Soros gets his money. I don't know where -- if it comes from overseas or it comes from drug groups or where it comes from."

A plainly startled Wallace asked, "You think he may be getting money from the drug cartel?"

"I'm saying we don't know," Hastert answered. "The fact is, we don't know where this money comes from."

Lest you think that Hastert simply got up on the wrong side of the bed that Sunday, he'd made the same claim -- again, couched in the conditional -- on Aug. 23 on radio station WNYC. "You know, Soros's money, some of that is coming from overseas. It could be drug money."

Republicans who complain, rightly, about the shaky scholarship of Kitty Kelley should have to explain why the speaker's innuendo is any more acceptable. Kelley at least went through the pretense of citing sources, or a source, or an unnamed source. Hastert didn't even do that.

Now, it's true that Soros has given money to drug-related causes and campaigns. He's donated to a number of successful state initiative campaigns to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. He's financed extensive needle-exchange programs in Eastern Europe to block the spread of AIDS. But until Hastert started spouting his charges, no one had ever suggested that Soros -- whose hedge-fund career is extensively documented -- was ever in cahoots with the Colombian cartels.

Well, almost no one. The so-called Executive Intelligence Review, the journal of Lyndon LaRouche and his delusional band, has indeed made that charge. This may testify to the breadth of Hastert's reading, but it doesn't say much for his judgment.

The irony here is that Soros is a figure whom Republicans should extol -- arguably the world's most effective capitalist anti-communist. He made his money the old-fashioned way, on Wall Street. He is a prominent apostle of philosopher Karl Popper, one of the 20th century's most luminous opponents of totalitarianism. Soros sank major money into opposition groups in the former Soviet bloc and provided crucial funding to the forces that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

But Soros has also been a critic of market fundamentalism and, more recently, of George W. Bush's economic and foreign policies. Which to Hastert means that it's okay to transform a drug-policy reformer into a drug kingpin, provided he begins his accusation with "I don't know if."

Soros wrote Hastert demanding a retraction, and the speaker responded with a letter all but denying that he'd appeared on "Fox News Sunday." "I never implied that you were a criminal and I never would," he wrote, "that's not my style." Lest there be lingering doubt that black is white, Hastert's press secretary declared, "Of course the speaker doesn't think [Soros] gets money from drug cartels."

Hastert didn't say he was misconstrued, mind you; he said he didn't say what he said. This was exactly the same tack taken by Vice President Cheney in responding to the furor over his remark that the United States would be more likely to be attacked if John Kerry were elected president. Cheney didn't say "What I meant was" but "What I said was."

By denying they'd said what they'd said, neither Hastert nor Cheney has felt obliged to apologize to the objects of his slander. Soros is now filing a complaint against Hastert with the House ethics committee, though he must know that the committee is not about to recommend the censure of the speaker.

Hastert, after all, was just following party policy. In this summer of Swift boats and Soros, the Republican leaders have chosen to cling to power through the kind of slander we have not heard since the heyday of Joseph McCarthy, and like Tailgunner Joe, they have no shame or decency left.