The Unbearable Lightness of Hastert

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Great article in The New Republic by Noam Scheiber, saying what needed to be said—that the Jabba-sized Speaker of the House is dimmer than a geriatric firefly, and that the beltway media hordes hid this fact from the public. Actually, worse than that—they portrayed Hastert, in profiles and columns, as a behind-the-scenes supergenius.

Here is Denny Hastert, master legislative strategist, peerless vote-counter, party-unifier extraordinaire. But, wouldn't you know, absolutely none of these skills is evident in public. Invariably, one of two things strikes you about these stories. The first is that they're so small-bore that they actually underscore the point that Hastert is a nonentity. Many of them even have a faintly patronizing tone, like a mother bragging that her 6-year-old poured his own bowl of Kix this morning. Take a Roll Call story from 2001 noting that Hastert had recently "asserted himself by moving dramatically to restructure two committees to resolve a bitter feud between two Members." Really? Two whole committees? All by himself?

This is a kabuki show that gets replayed many, many times every day across the city. Reporters will know that Leader X or Presidential Contender Y is a lightweight. But they'll be spun by staffs and muscled by their editors to be "even-handed"—i.e., to obscure their subjects' dimness.

NEXT: A Short History of the GOP's Long Decline

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  1. David Weigel,

    If this is true, that many famous/important Washington figures are “lightweights,” and the reporters all know, but their editors stop them from telling us, and you are one of those reporters with this inside knowledge, I think you owe it to us Hit and Run readers to produce a list of these “lightweights” at once, in the magazine or on the website, and to update this list regularly.

  2. My own little moment of illumination regarding Hastert (upon whom I had probably never spent thirty seconds’ thought) was when he asserted, during the last Presidential election, that John Kerry was being funded by the DRUGLORDS.

    How did we know this? George Soros (aka fiend in human form) supported Kerry. Soros had also, at some time or times, averred that the War on Drugs was not a good thing. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from these two bits of information was that the druglords were funding the Kerry campaign, presumably so they could get advantageous treatment in the new libertinist administration.

    My impression of Hastert’s ascension to Speaker was that he was deemed to be a good political compromise who could be easily deposed at some later date.

  3. Okay, this is the thrid time today I’ve tried to post a comment and it hasn’t gone through. When this one fails to appear, it will be four. Even when they do work, you have to REALLY want to post and be willing to wait five minutes to load the new page.

    Something must be done. I beg of you. Because when comments are outlawed, only outlaws will post comments. Or something.

  4. I think mitch has a good idea.

  5. A more likely expaination is that honest stories like “Chairman X is a drooling idiot” or “Secretary Y is chemically imbalanced from her hairspray” would mean the reporter and possibly the publication would be cutoff from access. But even faint praise will keep the bridges to the Congressional staffs and PR flacks and even gets an off the record lunch date with the Undersecretary for Parking and Shrubery.

    The Wash Post runs a continuous stream of puff articles that make clueless political appointees, congressman and a few credulous bureaucrats seem like they aren’t total wastes of meat … and maybe provides a little inside dope on what is really happening in DC.

  6. In the context of congress critters, I’m curious how a lightweight would be distinguishable from anyone else. What are the criteria?

    The post seems to harbor a strange optimism for what is possible.

  7. A more likely expaination is that honest stories like “Chairman X is a drooling idiot” or “Secretary Y is chemically imbalanced from her hairspray” would mean the reporter and possibly the publication would be cutoff from access. But even faint praise will keep the bridges to the Congressional staffs and PR flacks and even gets an off the record lunch date with the Undersecretary for Parking and Shrubery.

    The Wash Post runs a continuous stream of puff articles that make clueless political appointees, congressman and a few credulous bureaucrats seem like they aren’t total wastes of meat … and maybe provides a little inside dope on what is really happening in DC.

  8. I am curious. Just what exactly is the hardware/software setup for the Hit and (squirrel)Run server?

    There are several techies who view this site. Perhaps they can offer some suggestions.

  9. I am curious. Just what exactly is the hardware/software setup for the Hit and (squirrel)Run server?

    There are several techies who view this site. Perhaps they can offer some suggestions.

  10. I don’t think this is the product of any conspiracy. It’s just that if you’re a trained journalist, it’s hard to write as dumb as some of these guys are. I see this with Bush all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a single word come out of his mouth that suggested any depth or intelligence. But, reporting on him usually goes something like this:

    After a question about a political development in Iraq:

    Bush: Now, look, these are bad guys. Yer either fer us or agin us. Stay the course.

    Reporter’s story: President Bush today expressed further dissatisfaction about the X parties continued maneuvering in face of next week’s elections. He called for continued support from our allies in order to ensure the realization of the administration’s strategic goals.

  11. I always figured he was a frontman and Delay was running the show. Picked because, as one of you wags said, he was least likely to be involved in a sex scandal. (Of his own, but perhaps not derivatively alas).

    He’s a human monument to Republicanism’s final decadence.

  12. Where did we start to assume that national politics would attract the best and the brightest? And since when has the media been crowned intelligentsia? Sorry…college is full of idiots…they just don’t graduate with degrees in physics…usually.

    You want citizen legislators and a free press, well, you’ll have to accept a whole lotta idgets I spose.

  13. I don’t think this is the product of any conspiracy. It’s just that if you’re a trained journalist, it’s hard to write as dumb as some of these guys are. I see this with Bush all the time. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a single word come out of his mouth that suggested any depth or intelligence. But, reporting on him usually goes something like this:

    After a question about a political development in Iraq:

    Bush: Now, look, these are bad guys. Yer either fer us or agin us. Stay the course.

    Reporter’s story: President Bush today expressed further dissatisfaction about the X parties continued maneuvering in face of next week’s elections. He called for continued support from our allies in order to ensure the realization of the administration’s strategic goals.

  14. Hastert’s response to Jefferson search was unforgivable, and should have been enough to have him removed from his leadership position. If masturgate gets it done, It won’t upset me.

  15. Ahem. In my direct contact with political figures and from what I’ve heard from my friends in government, elected politicians are usually not the bright ones in the room. I recently heard Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., a Democrat, incidentally, state that same fact with the supposedly brainy Clinton administration. He said that every single time, the dumbest guy in the room was the elected fellow (and yes, he meant Clinton and Gore, too). Part of that was to point how how smart the advisers were, but part of it was also to note that the PR and the media around politicians often grossly inflates their intellectual capacities. We also, almost to a person, have a big problem conflating public speaking ability with intellect. In an era when virtually no one in public office writes his own speeches, that’s a bit silly.

    Of course, all that means is that “us the people” are even stupider for voting not-so-smart and not-so-honest people into office. Why do we do that again?

  16. There are several techies

    Server’s running FreeBSD Apache/1.3.37 Ben-SSL/1.57 Unix PHP/4.3.11

    But it’s been running that for several years!

    /tar -cvf squirrel.tar /var/lib/mysql (repeat for html directory)
    //ftp open some.other.server
    ///mput allthecra*
    ////fixed!

  17. You know, one of the beefs I have with the Washington media is this access issue. “But if we say what’s really going on, we’ll lose access to the White House, Congress, Buffy at Caf? Risque, etc., etc.” Okay, fine. But isn’t there an unfilled niche for a mainstream, reasonably unbiased media outlet that gives up “access” for honest reporting? I’d love to read a paper that told me that Hastert is a complete moron, Foley a pederast, and so on. I don’t mean that it should be limited just to gossip, either. I simply want something that will tell me all that it knows, without worrying about access. Insider sources are highly questionable, anyway, and Zeus knows there is plenty of information available out there without them.

    I’d trade my obsession over the Censor for a really hardnosed, mostly objective, fuck-the-government (of any political flavor, mind you) newspaper.

  18. I’d trade my obsession over the Censor for a really hardnosed, mostly objective, fuck-the-government (of any political flavor, mind you) newspaper.
    Umm PL, it comes out once a month, oddly enough sponsored by the same people who can’t seem to keep this blog software running.

  19. Kwix,

    I love Reason, but I was talking about a daily newspaper. Anyway, Reason has other fish to fry than just obsessing over everything going on in D.C.

    If I were the publisher of such a paper, I’d post a bounty to any person whose information led to the ejection (voluntary or otherwise) of any elected official from national office. Maybe even from state office if the paper got big enough. This bounty would be available all the time, not just as a one-time shot.

  20. Hastert is simply a fat, in-over-his-head Claudius dragged out as a figurehead following the coup d’etat against Caligula — um, I mean Gingrich.

  21. What’s wrong with his mouth? Did he eat his own upper lip?

    Also: nice image tag.

  22. Two words: wrestling coach.

    What more needs saying?

    Narr

  23. great idea, that bounty, PL…..re:acess vs accuracy- Knight-Ridder wrote the best (read-skeptical,critical,thoughtful) articles about Iraq during the hysterical jingo run up to the invasion. Those pre war arts stand today. Knight Ridder had ZERO acess to the suits & wheels in DC & the Pentagon.
    Coincidence? You decide…..

  24. I always figured he was a frontman and Delay was running the show. Picked because, as one of you wags said, he was least likely to be involved in a sex scandal. (Of his own, but perhaps not derivatively alas).

    I dunno about *that.* There’s been some persistent rumors for quite a few years now that Hastert has a somewhat…close relationship with his chief of staff. Between rumors back in his district that he quit his coaching job before he could be fired for some form of sexual misconduct, his sharing an apartment with his cheif of staff (unheard of in Washington, both for their living arrangement and for the fact that they appear to be inseperable even out of work) and the fact that his wife generally stays in a hotel when she visits in DC, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he shielded Foley because he was afraid of something “coming out” about him, so to speak.

  25. “asserted himself by moving dramatically to restructure two committees to resolve a bitter feud between two Members.”

    hu-hu-huh. “Members.”

    What a particularly appropriate term.

  26. Narr, my late Dad coached wrestling (and baseball, basketball, track, soccer..) He was nobody’s dummy. Got his Masters and was made Athletic Director of his school district. He had to crunch budget numbers and everything. Coach Hastert may be as dim as some say, but his old job probably doesn’t come into it.

    If I may be so immodest, I’m a pretty bright guy. I tested well coming out of High School, won the County Latin Society’s prize for translating Caesar at the end of my sophomore year, was a National Merit finalist, even. Still, in some avenues of life I’m a certified idiot. If there were an IQ test for “interpersonal relationships” I might be in the “moron” column. For all my interest in politics (a B.A. in PoliSci, volunteering for several campaigns, running for office myself) and demonstrated public speaking ability (NFL double-ruby pin, state JV debate champ, amateur actor in both H.S. and college productions) I couldn’t come within spitting distance of the knack even the lamest state legislative backbencher has for convincing citizens to vote for them. If you extracted all the talent needed to run for office from that room full of Big Brains described above and put it on one side of a scale, with the same essence removed from the little finger of someone who actually got elected in the other pan, I have no doubt which way it would tip. The pol will win that contest almost every time. The exception will be when one of his advisors is a pol in utero.

    I could debate my foes in front of crowds, on radio or even on TV, and I had no fear. I was awful at working a room, though. “Retail politics” requires a skill set that I just suck at. It requires that you make small talk with people you hardly know on things that are important to them, which you might not give a flying fig about. Just pasting a phony smile on my face for a half hour gave me the creeps. I prefer to smile in response to situations that are actually pleasant or amusing. I also never nailed down the “tell them what they want to hear” trick. Asking for contributions almost made me physically ill.

    Go ahead, mock politicians all you want for being not as bright as policy wonks. They do have certain talents that I don’t share. There’s a reason the used car dealer is brought up as a comparison point for pols. Both have to convince strangers to part with money for an imperfect product, and “closing the deal” is the most important skill of all.

    We don’t want a government ruled by The Smartest Guys In The Room, anyway. We tried electing a Political Science professor once, and got Woodrow Wilson, my nominee for Worst President Ever. Unfortunately, political wonks are raised up to read Plato, with the philosopher-kings of the Republic praised, and the mere Orator derided, as in the Gorgias. That’s not the best attitude for running a representative republic.

    Kevin

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