The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dennis Hastert’s stunningly hypocritical 1998 speech about impeaching Bill Clinton

There's an enormous amount of tragedy surrounding revelations that former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sexually abused a number of young men whom he coached during his time as a high school teacher and wrestling instructor. But there's also an enormous amount of hypocrisy, as the public words of a public man are seen in a new light after his past conduct was revealed.

The events that led to Hastert's election as speaker overlapped with the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton. That impeachment centered on Clinton's own sexual misconduct -- albeit legal conduct with an adult. It was his denial under oath that he'd had an affair with Monica Lewinsky that prompted the Republican-led House to call for his ouster.

On Dec. 18, 1998, Hastert -- a month away from taking the gavel as speaker -- rose to address the topic.

Then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) advocated for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, saying no one is above the law. (Video: C-SPAN)
Mr. Speaker, I am saddened that there is clear and convincing evidence that the president lied under oath, obstructed justice and abused the powers of his office in an attempt to cover up his wrongdoing. I regret that the president's behavior puts me in the position of having to vote in favor of articles of impeachment and pass this matter on to the U.S. Senate for final judgment. In facing this solemn duty, I looked to the wisdom of our founding fathers.
According to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65, impeachment concerns offenses with proceed from the misconduct of public men -- or in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. The evidence in President Clinton's case is overwhelming, that he has abused and violated the public trust. In this nation, all men are created equal. Simply put, the president in our representative democracy is not a sovereign who is above the law.
Tomorrow, I shall cast a difficult vote. The president's inability to abide by the law, the Constitution and my conscience have all led me to the solemn conclusion that impeachment articles must be passed.

Hastert's reference to his "conscience" and scolding remarks about abuse of the public trust were not atypical for a Republican leader at the time. But today, knowing that Hastert had in his past ignored his conscience to abuse trust in a more significant way, the speech is jarring in its hypocrisy.

A month later, after the path to his election as speaker was cleared by his chief opponent, Bob Livingston, who admitted to extramarital affairs, Hastert took the gavel to lead the chamber. He spoke about his new role with humility, frequently referring to his time as a coach in Illinois and the lessons it taught him.

He mentioned that period when he introduced himself to the country.

Those of you here in this House know me. But "Hastert" is not exactly a household name across America. So our fellow citizens deserve to know who I am and what I am going to do. What I am is a former high school teacher, a wrestling and football coach, a small businessman and a state legislator. And for the last 12 years, I've been a member of this House.

He talked about the lessons he'd learned from coaching.

A good coach doesn't rely on only a few star players, and everyone on the squad has something to offer. And you never get to the finals without a well-rounded team, and above all, a coach worth his salt will instill in his team a sense of fair play, camaraderie, respect for the game and for the opposition.

And he mentioned his time as a teacher when calling for limiting federal oversight of schools.

In my 16 years as a teacher, I learned that most of the decisions having to do with education are best left to the people closest to the situation – parents, teachers, school board members. What should the federal government's role be?

As the Chicago Tribune reported last week, Hastert suggested that the federal government take a firmer hand in at least one situation: sexual abuse crimes.

"It is important to have a national notification system to help safely recover children kidnapped by child predators," he said in a statement reported by the Tribune. "But it is equally important to stop those predators before they strike, to put repeat child molesters into jail for the rest of their lives and to help law enforcement with the tools they need to get the job done."

On Wednesday, Judge Thomas Durkin described Hastert as a "serial child molester" as he prepared to impose a sentence. But Hastert won't spend the rest of his life in prison. Like Clinton, he was targeted for a tangential crime, and he was sentenced to 15 months.

Judge sentences former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert to 15 months in federal prison