Why Hastert's prison term will make history

  • Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert during happier times, thanking supporters at an election victory party. Hastert is scheduled to report to prison Wednesday to begin a 15-month sentence, becoming the highest-ranking federal official to spend time behind bars.

      Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert during happier times, thanking supporters at an election victory party. Hastert is scheduled to report to prison Wednesday to begin a 15-month sentence, becoming the highest-ranking federal official to spend time behind bars. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

 
 

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert's term in prison is set to start by Wednesday, making him the highest-ranking elected official in American history to serve time behind bars.

Hastert was once two heartbeats away from the presidency during his term as speaker, and experts asked by the Daily Herald agreed no one closer to ascending to the White House has ever served prison time.

The longtime suburban congressman, sentenced to 15 months in prison for a banking crime that led him to admit to molesting at least one former student while a teacher at Yorkville High School decades ago, is set to report to the Federal Bureau of Prisons by 2 p.m. Wednesday.

It's not as if Hastert is the first high-ranking official in U.S. history to have been accused of serious misdeeds.

In the nation's earliest days, Thomas Jefferson's first vice president, Aaron Burr, set a low bar for political misbehavior. He shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in the infamous 1804 duel that's now part of pop culture because of a Broadway musical. However, Burr never was tried or imprisoned for Hamilton's death.

Later, after leaving the Jefferson administration, Burr was charged with treason in 1806 for leading an armed group toward the city of New Orleans. He was acquitted and served no prison time.

Hastert's case has only occasionally made the big national headlines that typically follow the indictment and conviction of someone who reached the near-peak of American politics.

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"It's been a while since he was speaker, and people have short memories for politics," said Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Gaines and other experts had to double-check Spiro Agnew, a vice president under Richard Nixon who resigned the office in 1973 while dogged by a kickback scandal. Agnew eventually avoided prison and received probation via a plea deal on tax-evasion charges.

And Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell went to prison following his involvement in the Watergate scandal, but House speakers come before attorneys general in the modern line of succession to the presidency.

An important difference, too, is that unlike the situations of those figures, Hastert's case didn't involve misdeeds committed while in office.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

His actions in office have become part of the story of his case, though.

For example, the molestation accusations raised old questions about how Hastert dealt with a 2006 scandal during his speakership when Florida Rep. Mark Foley was found to have sent inappropriate instant messages to young congressional pages.

And the Patriot Act approved under Hastert's watch was the law that in part led to the investigation into his past.

"By the way, the speaker led the charge in making sure the House passed the Patriot Act the first time and then reauthorized it," then-President George W. Bush said of Hastert, praising him at a 2006 fundraiser in Chicago.

Hastert's case, though, ultimately was about what happened before and after his career in politics, becoming maybe the best-known former teacher ever accused of molesting a student, said Andrew Conneen, a politics and government teacher at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire who sometimes appears on CSPAN to talk about U.S. government.

"When we first heard about this as social studies teachers ... it was looking at it both from the government point of view, of how disappointing this was of a high-ranking official being accused of this," Conneen said. "But also from the social studies teacher point of view, it was even more tragic, the fact that he had victimized these students."

Once No. 2 in the line of presidential succession, Hastert will be prisoner number 47991-424, according to the Bureau of Prisons website.

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