Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
The question is posed at the end of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” But it really is the question of all our lives.
Each of us has a narrative we tell about ourselves. Others have their versions. History reconciles those accounts. And that’s how we’re remembered.
I thought about that question a few days ago while tracking the developments in a courtroom in Chicago, where former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert finally was revealed as a serial child molester. And the answer immediately became:
Not Hastert, not anymore.
For decades, Hastert tried to shape his own narrative. With hundreds of thousands of dollars paid in exchange for silence from one of the boys he abused while a high school wrestling coach in the 1970s. With a hypocritical condemnation of Mark Foley, when the Florida congressman was accused in 2006 of sending sexually explicit instant messages and suggestive emails to teenage pages. With his powerful advocacy for life sentences for repeat child molesters.
Hastert nearly succeeded. His story became that of the longest-serving Republican speaker, second-in-line for eight years to the presidency. Of the United States. A man admiring colleagues called “Coach.”
Hastert used his wealth and power and the likelihood that he would be believed in a clash of conflicting stories to maintain his status. Until federal prosecutors said he abused at least five students at Yorkville High in Illinois — an undoing 40 years in the making.
He wasn’t convicted of the abuse. The statute of limitations had run out. The feds got him for violating banking laws on reporting cash transactions. Hastert lied about the nature of his withdrawals and the payments he was making, and said the victim was a blackmailer, victimizing him again.
But last week U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin forced Hastert to admit what he had done. He labeled Hastert a “serial child molester.” And when Hastert referred to his conduct as “ambiguous,” Durkin shot back that there was no ambiguity. “This is sexual abuse,” he said.
Durkin weighed the competing narratives in sentencing Hastert. Victims and families conveyed pain and anguish. And there were supporters who wrote letters.
Now, I’m not naive. Missives on behalf of corrupt politicians always cite years of public service in a bid to lessen punishment, as if it’s an appropriate quid pro quo. Often, it isn’t. But Hastert’s crimes made the testimonials particularly egregious.
Former Rep. Tom DeLay called Hastert a man of “great integrity” who “loves and respects his fellow man.” Former Rep. Thomas Ewing wrote that Hastert was “a man of faith, integrity and honesty.” Porter Goss, a former congressman and director of the CIA, said, “Perhaps, the Speakers (sic) greatest gift to the House was trust.”
That was precisely what Hastert violated, repeatedly, with the boys who called him coach.
The trauma of childhood sexual abuse can reverberate for a long time. For many, it’s forever. That’s true now for Hastert, too.
What happened in that courtroom ensures that every story about Hastert, every reference to him in every history book, every obituary when that day comes, will contain in the first sentence some reference to Hastert as a serial sexual abuser.
As it should be.
One U.S. attorney involved in the case praised the investigators who exposed Hastert and the victims who agreed to tell their stories, saying that without them, “History would have told a lie.”
And now we know the answer. We live, we die, and a group of brave victims, persistent investigators and a federal judge have told Dennis Hastert’s story.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.