“Denny Hastert is on the phone from Peru! Who wants to talk to him?”
An editor made this proclamation one afternoon in late-May 1997, in the newsroom of The Beacon News in Aurora. Because the Beacon’s sister paper in Elgin was my home base as a reporter back then, it was just a quirk of timing that I was even around to hear City Editor John Russell holler this invitation.
I had met Hastert a few other times, in passing, and written a story about some of his efforts as chairman of the Congressional committee with jurisdiction over the nation’s drug-fighting programs. I felt a certain connection to Hastert, as well, because one of my closest friends from high school was a staffer on that committee.
Even in 1997, a few years before Hastert became one of the most unlikely U.S. Speakers of the House in our nation’s history, this former high wrestling coach and teacher from Yorkville had established himself as a politician of some renown.
Hastert was widely respected. Part of that appeal was that he didn’t look or sound like a polished Washington political player. He could be the guy behind the convenience store cash register or the Everyman working at some 9-to-5 office job. No biographical history was complete without noting his background as a high school teacher and wrestling coach. Who can’t relate to—and have a deep respect for—those positions?
He was someone folks felt they could relate to, and seemed like someone unaffected by the trappings of power and prestige. So it was surprising that Russell’s overture was greeted by collective silence.
“Oh, what the heck,” I thought. “How often do I get to talk to a Congressman anyway?”
I hollered out that I’d take the call. Over the next 15 or 20 minutes, I found out what Hastert was doing in Peru and gathered enough comments and background to churn out a simple, inside-page article. The headline: “Hastert Checks in From Front Line of U.S. War on Drugs.”
Today, the headlines concerning Hastert are dramatically different. Words like “fraud” and “hush-money scandal” and “sexual abuse” dominate, dating back to his time as a high school teacher and coach.
Pondering this turn of events, it feels presumptuous and naïve to refer to it all as “shocking.” I really don’t know the man, and only had a few brief encounters with him. Public figures, including and perhaps especially those who have enjoyed widespread esteem, have displayed a remarkable penchant for having skeletons in their closets.
But still…I am shocked. And I am saddened—foremost, for the damage that Hastert is alleged to have done to others’ lives. But that sadness also extends to the devastation that his actions—and only God and Denny know their full extent—have inflicted on his own life and legacy.