Hastert Disaster

Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, a 62-year-old career politician from--and Mike Myers' fans may be permitted a chuckle here--Aurora, Illinois, stands on the second rung of presidential succession, right after the veep. Should, as Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) is attempting to do, President Bush and Vice President Cheney be impeached and removed from office (a liberal lark, perhaps, but serious enough to attract the attention of The Nation's Washington correspondent John Nichols, who reported on it Wednesday), Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert would become President Hastert, and America would enter the Hastert era. First Lady Laura will become First Lady Jean. Crawford will move to Yorkville, Illinois, on the Fox River.

For those who don't remember Saturday Night Live's “Wayne's World” sketch from the early '90s, Aurora, Illinois, lies about 30 minutes west of Chicago out Interstate 88. It's a suburban community, but still far enough from the metropolis to have its own medium-sized town identity. Aurora isn't Grover's Corners by a long shot, but it, plus the extending farmland to the west that encompasses Hastert's home district, is Big Ten-rooting, flat-A pronouncing, Heartland America.

John Kerry won Illinois comfortably in 2004, thanks to the impenetrable Democratic fortress that is Cook County. Every county save one (Whiteside County) in Hastert's district, though, chose Bush by at least five percentage points. And the speaker himself comfortably won re-election with 74 percent of his district's votes. But that, of course, was then. As the various “Year in Review” double-issues pile up on magazine stands, the one consensus emerging from all pundits and prognosticators is that 2005 was, well, different.

So now?

Only one year later, the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll reports that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Congress, a body constructed entirely upon a metaphysical skeleton of majorities, does not enjoy a majority of support among its own constituency. The last time Congress did earn a majority approval rating from Americans was during the gung-ho “shock-and-awe”/WMD days two and a half years ago. Hastert's House is hated; calls for inquiries, indictments--a conviction, even--riddle his chamber. What's an Auroran to do?

Extreme deference to the executive has been Hastert's most notable feature as Speaker; to whom would he defer should he become the executive?

Turns out, there'd be plenty of folks to follow blindly into the fray.

According to Project Vote Smart, Hastert has supported the interests of the National Right to Life Committee 100 percent of the time since 1998. This figure, it should be noted, was reported to Project Vote Smart directly from the National Right to Life Committee itself. In an obvious corollary, Hastert has supported the interests of Planned Parenthood zero percent of the time in the same period. These figures were similarly reported directly to Project Vote Smart by Planned Parenthood. Most unions, including the AFL-CIO, give Hastert identical zero percent ratings for supporting their interests. In contrast, the libertarian Cato Institute gave Hastert an ace for their hole regarding trade issues. More succinctly, the National Journal has given Hastert a percentile score of 96 regarding his relative conservatism in the House regarding economic, defense, and foreign policy issues, and a 95 regarding social issues.

Now, any college senior would blush over 95th and 96th percentile scores on the LSAT or MCAT. Word, regardless of the modesty of the test-taker, would spread around campus. I've seen it happen, the sudden magisterial awe that envelops someone after a roommate or best friend has leaked his test scores to the rumor mill. [ Full disclosure: My own test scores were never deemed leak-ably high by friends.] Why, then, has Hastert been the subject of only three New York Times headlines in the last year while his counterpart in the Senate, Bill Frist, has been boldly emblazoned 46 times? Could it be, that mild-mannered J. Dennis Hastert is the fence, the infamous “third man” who's been in charge all along and will finally assume power when the front men crumble? Have we been duped, focusing our venom on George and Dick instead of 96th percentile-Denny?

Silently, J. Dennis Hastert is a conservative avatar. In 1998, he voted against an amendment (that eventually passed) for the National Endowment for the Arts, a tiny but ubiquitous thorn in the conservative movement's side ever since the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe brouhaha in the '80s. Would a Hastert administration jail museum curators in Guantanamo as enemy social combatants? In his defense of the current U.S. position in Iraq, Hastert has profligated the same pejorative “cut-and-run” euphemism once used by vilified Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt against a “cowardly” Rep. John Murtha last month. Maybe this is the guy the right wing has wanted all along.

Of course, with, as every pundit in Washington has noted, three more years left in George W. Bush's term, a hypothetical President Hastert could enjoy over 30 months of raw, un-elected, power.

When Lyndon Johnson assumed control of the presidency on November 22, 1963, he maintained JFK's cabinet until he won the Oval Office himself in 1964. As David Halberstam reported in The Best and The Brightest, this ultimately led to innumerable personality and political conflicts within the administration. Should Hastert be called upon to take President Bush's job, would he leave the same cronies and yes-men hanging around the White House? Johnson certainly failed to quell Vietnam with Kennedy's men, the so-called “brain trust.” Can we expect Hastert to fare any better in Iraq with what The New Republic called Bush's “Hackocracy?”

Based on his strikes-and-gutters record with special interest groups, President Hastert could defer important decisions--just as he has as speaker--to those who support his personal views. Would the House, now grown meek as a mouse under Hastert's tenure, rebuke? It's a parallel universe, and a dark one at that. NARAL? Silenced. Forget it. And there'd better be some more Grant Wood-like hacks out there stretching canvasses.

If President Bush and Vice President Cheney have broken the law, they should be impeached and tried before the Senate. If they are, though, we should examine all possible outcomes, especially the one bestowing the presidential mace upon J. Dennis Hastert.

Simon Maxwell Apter, a former Prospect intern, will begin an internship with The Nation in New York this month.

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