John Kass: A fall from decency
Did Denny Hastert really fall from grace with that indictment that brought him to federal court on Tuesday?
As I waited for him to perform his perp-walk, that rite of shaming that white-collar criminals endure, and later when waiting for his barely audible whispers before the judge, I considered this so-called fall from grace.
That’s the national common wisdom, or at least the common line, and it’s been used thousands upon thousands of times to describe what happened to Hastert, the former speaker of the House, the man second in line of succession to the presidency of the United States.
He was the man who was thought of as unpretentious, not some viperous windbag like his predecessor, Newt Gingrich.
Hastert was sold to America as being humble, a man without airs, a Midwesterner, a man who was decent.
But being in a state of grace means you’re in a sinless state. And Hastert was no saint. He was a politician.
He was an Illinois combine boss who spent years wheedling federal earmarks and federal cash. He traded favors and leverage. He was a politico.
And now his legacy is that of a wrestling coach who allegedly paid hush money – up to $3.5 million in cash – to cover up what federal law enforcement sources have said was sex with a male student.
So on Tuesday, watching him do the perp-walk outside the federal building, lurching from car to courthouse door, reporters shouting, pressing in that cliche of humiliation, there was not even the tiniest remnant of grace upon him.
There is something obscene and horrifying about the perp-walk. It is necessary, yes, and it gives cameras something dramatic to shoot and writers a jumping-off point for our essays on corruption.
It is also part of the ceremony of justice, or at least the ritual of shame, a bit of drama required by the public and essential in a thoroughly corrupt state like Illinois.
I waited with the other reporters outside. We were like meat-eaters at some water hole in a dry, parched land. We knew he’d have to show.
“Hastert!” someone said, and it was on.
He came out of the car hunched, holding on to his lawyer’s arm, a puffy old man in a blue suit, head down, looking over his glasses, reporters pressing him, looking over his shoulder. He must have smelled their breath.
Later, upstairs, at the defense table in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, he had that same expression: pursed lips, face pinched, as he walked into the courtroom.
I stared at him from where a few of us sat in the jury box, taking notes. He glanced up, then lowered his eyes and covered his mouth with his left hand.
For at least 15 excruciating minutes, the courtroom was silent, Hastert waiting. He’d pull at his lips and he’d cover his face again. Not all of his face, just the half where his mouth was.
He looked all hollowed out, chewed up, like paper.
It reminded me of when my brothers and I were children on the South Side. We’d run to Leo’s corner store to buy penny candy, like those colored dots, hard sugar lumps on paper rolls. Sometimes we’d take a bite of paper with the candy and later spit it out as we talked of the White Sox or what happens to souls in limbo.
That bit of chewed-up paper would dry in the sun, a lump on the sidewalk that had been paper but was now in altered form. And so it was with Hastert, irreconcilable with the original, an altered man most likely changed by having to tell his family about why the feds had come after him.
But how do you tell your wife? How do you tell your children? How can you live with such a thing?
When the judge entered the room, and Hastert stood before him to plead not guilty to the charges that have nothing to do with sex, he did something new.
He stopped covering his mouth. He kept his hands low, fingers interlaced, and held them low, and kept them there.
When asked yes or no questions, about whether he understood the charges against him and so on, he whispered,
You could barely hear his voice. And when it came out, it was a whispered croak.
The news of the day was Durkin’s clear declarations of his possible conflicts of interest: That he contributed about $1,500 to Hastert campaign funds but never talked to Hastert; that he knew the prosecutors from his days as a supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office; that he knew Hastert’s son from their work together at a prominent Chicago law firm.
Durkin said he’d let the lawyers decide later if they wanted him on the case. When court was adjourned, the lawyers broke off and whispered to each other.
They left Hastert to stand alone.
The former speaker, the man celebrated as a decent sort, as “Coach Hastert,” the Midwesterner who talked about the importance of protecting children, he just stood off by himself.
For about a minute or so, his face was pointed at the empty judge’s bench. He didn’t move. Finally, the lawyers pulled at his elbow and led him away.
Hastert was a politician who reportedly paid hush money to cover up sex with a student.
So he wasn’t in a sinless state. His wasn’t a fall from grace.
His was a fall from decency.