Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about the case against former Speaker Dennis Hastert, Lindsey Graham’s reception to Caitlyn Jenner, and the Tony Awards.
It now appears that the former House speaker Dennis Hastert sexually abused at least two students during his years (1965–1981) as a teacher and wrestling coach in the farm town of Yorkville, Illinois: “Individual A,” whom he tried to silence with $3.5 million in hush moneyaccording to the indictment that brought this story into the open, and Steve Reinboldt, who died of AIDS in 1995 and whose story was told by his younger sister to ABC News. As the circle widens, what’s the chance that some of Hastert’s congressional colleagues have knowledge of a cover-up — beyond scant rumors — and that one will eventually come forward?
We are talking about two potential cover-ups here. One may involve Hastert’s own actions: Did colleagues know about his past and look the other way? One former congressman, Mel Watt of North Carolina, has suggested as much. But the more important cover-up involves the House of Representatives as an institution. Did some of the Congressional leadership during Hastert’s reign behave as odiously (and perhaps as illegally) as the hierarchies of the Catholic Church and Penn State when confronted with a perpetrator of sexual abuse in their own ranks?
The latter case centers on Mark Foley, the former Florida congressman who resigned in the fall of 2006 after the exposure of predatory, sexually explicit emails and instant messages he sent to male congressional pages. Foley was said to have trolled pages inappropriately as far back as 1995. After the scandal became public, both journalists and House Ethics Committee investigators found that Hastert, the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in the chamber’s history, had remained “willfully ignorant”(as the Ethics report had it) about repeated reports of Foley’s transgressions. Indeed, Coach Hastert seems to have adopted a see-no-evil defense akin to Coach Joe Paterno’s. But unlike Paterno, he was able to slip away quietly, departing Congress after Foley’s exit. Writing about the case in Vanity Fair in 2007, Gail Sheehy quoted a source who accused Hastert of having “attempted a cover-up” of his dereliction of duty in the Foley case — a cover-up that involved coordination with John Boehner (then the majority leader), Roy Blunt (then majority whip, now a senator), and Thomas Reynolds (a New York congressman who also slinked away into retirement in the scandal’s aftermath). If the church and Penn State could finally clean house, surely the House of Representatives must do the same. Whether it does or not, a press exhumation of this case may well come to haunt the 2016 election.