Dennis the menace?

With all the calls for Dennis Hastert to resign, I figured that — even though I find such finer details of our government crashingly dull — I better weigh in.

(Quick disclaimer: I am writing this Sunday evening. The latest is that Hastert is declining to comment, as there is a current investigation by the House Ethics Committee. If anything develops between Monday at 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., I won’t have a chance to update it.)

Right now, there is considerable dispute about “what Hastert knew, and when he knew it” about former Representative Mark Foley. The last version I heard was that Hastert had been told about some semi-creepy e-mails between Foley and some pages, but nothing remotely actionable. So Hastert told him to leave that particular individual alone.

If that was the extent of Hastert’s knowledge, then his failure to more closely watch Foley — or even move to get him out of office — is excusable. The standard for conduct by politicians has been greatly eroded over the years, especially when it comes to sexual peccadilloes with subordinates. In the 80s, it was worth a censure. In the 90’s, it was “no big deal” — one could even lie about it under oath, and even statutory rape was forgivable. For better or worse, that was the precedent Hastert had to work with.

But if Hastert knew more about Foley’s activities — the gossip about him among the pages, the truly salacious instant messages, and the like — then he SHOULD have dug a bit deeper, and it is to his eternal disgrace that he did not.

But I find it really hard to get too worked up about whether Hastert should remain as speaker or not. Because I lost all respect and interest in him months ago.

When Congressman William Jefferson Clinton (dammit, I’ve GOTTA stop doing that) was exposed as being horrifically corrupt, he tried to hide evidence in his Congressional office. The FBI worked for months to gain permission from Jefferson to search, but he hid behind his “Congressional immunity” and the “separation of powers” argument. Finally the FBI, fed up with the delays and worried about a “shredding party” in the Congressman’s offices, went to extraordinary lengths to make sure Jefferson’s office was searched in as non-intrusive and minimally-invasive way as possible. First, they got a federal judge to issue a search warrant — meaning that it was two branches of government (the FBI, as part of the Executive, and the judge, as a member of the Judicial) acting together and in concert against the third (the Legislative). Next, the actual material taken was examined by agents from outside the investigation, agents who had the authority to exclude anything that might be politically sensitive or not critical to the case.

And how did Hastert react to this prima facie example of rank political corruption in the House he oversaw? Did he work with the FBI to see that the full truth was out, and the potential shame of the House was properly investigated and the micreant (if proven so) was properly removed from office?

In a word, no. In three words, he went apeshit.

Hastert loudly denounced the “intrusion” and “violation” of the FBI, and threatened dire political consequences for the affront. He had no words of condemnation for the actual cause of all the problems — the Congressman who stalled and delayed and denied with the FBI for months, but instead laid all the blame on the FBI — and, by extension, the president.

It took some skillful politicking by President Bush — including an intervention into an ongoing criminal investigation — to avoid a major Constitutional crisis — and it was one that nearly everyone predicted that Hastert would lose. For if he had won, he would have established the Congress as a law unto itself, utterly exempt from justice (and the Justice Department). Eventually, enough people talked sense into Hastert, and he “allowed” himself to be talked into a face-saving compromise.

There’s a part of me that is a bit of a “purist” when it comes to justice. I tend not to favor people being punished for things they didn’t do, even if they did escape punishment on prior misdeeds. It’s that — and that alone — that keeps me from wanting to see Hastert fall over the Foley thing unless there is solid evidence he knew just how far Foley was willing to go to sate his urges.

Until then, Hastert remains in solid possession of my contempt, disdain, and utter disinterest.

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