It was the most tumultuous of times, and House Republicans needed a steady hand whose personal and professional life could withstand the harsh scrutiny of the moment. One lawmaker fit the bill: Denny Hastert.
In December 1998, after they had ousted Newt Gingrich as speaker for haphazard mismanagement, Republicans lost his designated successor because of extramarital affairs. So they turned to the quiet, behind-the-scenes operator with a Midwestern attitude who built his persona on being a high school wrestling coach.
“I looked him right in the face and said, ‘Can you withstand the scrutiny?’ He said yes,” then-Rep. Donald Manzullo, a Republican from a neighboring Illinois district, told The Washington Post back then.
He won the internal Republican vote by acclamation, and on Jan. 6, 1999, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) became speaker of the House. He would hold the gavel for eight years — unprecedented for a Republican.
That carefully constructed image came crashing down Thursday when a federal grand jury in Chicago handed up an indictment of Hastert, who retired in 2007 after Republicans lost the majority. It charged him with using a complicated series of financial machinations to hide part of an attempted $3.5 million payoff to someone from Yorkville, Ill., the small town where he taught high school.
The brief indictment does not elaborate on the “prior misconduct” that Hastert allegedly committed against “Individual A,” whose identity was kept secret by federal prosecutors. But prosecutors began the charging document by noting that Hastert spent 15 years as a high school teacher and coach in the exurbs west of Chicago before entering politics in 1981.
Hastert has not issued any statement, nor have any attorneys on his behalf. Efforts to reach him have been unsuccessful. One of his sons, a Chicago lawyer, has not responded to requests for Hastert’s side of the story. An arraignment in federal court will come on a date that has yet to be determined.
The steady hand Republicans entrusted with their leadership — from the post-impeachment late 1990s through the terrorist attacks of 2001 and two wars — somehow had a secret background that none of them ever imagined.
Reached as the news broke, Gingrich said in a brief interview that he could not think of any whisper of impropriety about Hastert.
Colleagues in the lobbying world said the same thing. Everyone seemed to echo what former House Republican leader Bob Michel (Ill.) said of Hastert back in 1998, when he was about to become speaker: “He’s like an old shoe.”
In the region that gave birth to Hastert, there was just as much shock.
“He got his job because he didn’t have any skeletons in his closet,” said Loren Miller, a longtime friend of Hastert’s from Illinois who played high school football against him.
It was a stunning fall from grace for a politician whose rise has always been enmeshed in being the solid back-bencher who could fill a void at times of crisis.
Just last year, Dickstein Shapiro, the law firm for which Hastert had worked since 2008, turned to him to run its Washington lobbying operation after several senior partners bolted and took big-name clients with them. On Thursday, the firm announced his resignation.
His ascension to Congress took similar shape.
In 1986, when the local congressman, John Grotberg, decided to retire because of poor health, it was too late to hold a formal primary. Local Republican leaders gathered in Aurora and unanimously picked Hastert, although he did not live in the district at the time. He was in his sixth year as a state representative, an office that he first received through an appointment to fill a vacancy left by a terminally ill lawmaker.
Once he reached Congress in 1987, Hastert linked arms with a rising Republican star, Tom DeLay, then a back-bench former exterminator from the Houston area. Together they raced up the leadership ladder, with Gingrich as their main internal rival.
In 1989, they ran the campaign of then-Rep. Ed Madigan (R-Ill.) against Gingrich for the No. 2 post, narrowly losing in a historic leadership race.
After Gingrich’s troops swept the 1994 elections, claiming the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, DeLay and Hastert went to work against Gingrich again. With DeLay as the candidate, they knocked off Gingrich’s best friend in the House, Robert Walker (R-Pa.), for majority whip.
With Hastert as his chief deputy whip, DeLay forged a reputation as an enforcer. Hastert was the good cop in the operation, a lumbering pleasant presence who would work through the substance and policy of legislation to move votes, while DeLay basked in “The Hammer” nickname that the media gave him.
Gingrich’s management style was erratic, a mile a minute. No one was sure which idea — some brilliant, some terrible — he would put forth each day. It so grated on Republicans that some plotted to overthrow Gingrich in 1997, with several top lieutenants participating.
In a caustic meeting in the Capitol basement, DeLay admitted his role in discussing the coup while others denied it. Rank-and-file members loved DeLay’s honesty.
After Republicans lost seats in 1998 — the only time in history the president’s party gained House seats in the sixth year of holding office — Gingrich was tossed overboard. Then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who had been chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee, secured the backing to become speaker. As the House marched forward with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, investigators began digging into Republican affairs amid cries of hypocrisy.
On the 1998 morning the House voted to impeach Clinton, Democrats chanted “you resign, you resign” at Livingston as he spoke, because his own affair years earlier had been outed largely through the work of Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine. Livingston did just that, resigning on the House floor.
In a chamber known for chaos over the past two decades, nothing compared to that House moment. It was chaotic and, literally, leaderless. Some turned to DeLay as their choice for speaker, but he knew that he was politically toxic.
Only one person seemed to have the personal background and professional acumen for that moment. Even Democrats saw Hastert as the right man for the job, with the right background and proper temperament.
“He’s got the ability and the temperament to find common ground,” then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a leading liberal, told The Post in 1999.
He concluded by invoking the background that they so admired — which is now at the heart of a criminal scandal that has rocked Washington.
“As a classroom teacher and a coach,” Hastert said, “I learned the value of brevity. I learned that it’s work, not talk, that wins championships. In closing, I want you to know just how proud I am to be chosen to be your speaker.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect state for Rep. Ed Madigan (R-Ill.).
Alice Crites, Mike DeBonis and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.