WASHINGTON — The most memorable day in my career was Dec. 19, 1998.
On that Saturday, President Bill Clinton, weighed down by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was impeached, which was expected.
The shocker — the stunning surprise — was the chain of events also taking place that same day leading to Rep. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, being poised to become the next Speaker of the House.
A day short of 21 years later, on Wednesday, I will be in exactly the same place, the House press gallery, when the House debates impeaching President Donald Trump.
Three members of that 1999 Illinois delegation are still in Congress: Republican John Shimkus from Collinsville and Democrats Bobby Rush and Danny Davis from Chicago.
Three members of that 1999 Illinois delegation were disgraced in later years: Hastert, then from Yorkville, and then-Chicago Democrats Reps. Rod Blagojevich and Jesse Jackson Jr. either are or were imprisoned.
I reported on the Clinton impeachment with an eye, as always, on the Illinois angle.
Helping me out on that front was the fact that House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde was from suburban Wood Dale. He presided over Clinton’s impeachment inquiry, sending four articles of impeachment to the House floor on Dec. 19, two of which would be approved.
Hyde hired Chicago attorney David Schippers to be the Judiciary Committee’s chief investigative counsel. Earlier in the month, on Dec. 9, 1998, Thomas Sullivan, a former U.S. Attorney in Chicago, then with the law firm of Jenner & Block, testified in Clinton’s defense at a House hearing.
The case against Clinton was built by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr with the turning point the revelation that Clinton had an intimate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The legal case had to do with Clinton obstructing justice and perjury but the politics of Clinton’s impeachment boiled down to revulsion on both sides of the aisle over his reckless sexual escapades.
With that in mind, the hypocrisy level when it came to sex on the part of Republicans was high as they were pursuing a president for lying about his own affairs.
As the House was dealing with impeachment, in September 1998 Hyde, then 74, was forced to acknowledge a five-year relationship he had in the 1960s with a woman when both were married.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on the very same day he was pushing for Clinton’s impeachment, was carrying on his own affair with a Hill staffer who would become his third wife. (Today, Callista Gingrich is Trump’s U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.)
That affair was not well known at the time, at least not to me.
Gingrich would be giving up the Speaker’s gavel when the new House was sworn-in that January because the Clinton impeachment — instead of increasing the GOP majority as Gingrich promised — gave Democrats a five seat pick-up. Gingrich was toast. Rep. Bob Livingston, from Louisiana, was to be the next speaker.
This sets the stage for that Saturday.
I got to the Hill early.
Then-first lady Hillary Clinton met with House Democrats in the morning in a closed session on Capitol Hill. I had to find out what happened for a separate story on the first lady, born in Chicago and raised in Park Ridge. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat who retired from Congress this year, was helpful. I quoted him as describing the session as “gut wrenching” as Hillary Clinton told Democrats she loved her husband and would fight for his political survival.
A short time later, the impeachment debate started in the House.
Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, was presiding. Today, his son, Darin LaHood represents that central Illinois district. The Illinois delegation that day also included Rep. Bill Lipinski, a Democrat then from Chicago. Today his son, Rep. Dan Lipinski holds that seat.
To this day, I can recall the audible gasp heard in the chamber when the members reacted to Livingston’s bombshell announcement that he was resigning.
It came during his speech after he called on Clinton to resign. Livingston was quitting as Hustler Magazine was about to include Livingston in an expose of congressional extra-marital affairs.
I realized instantly that Hastert had the potential to quickly put together the support to be the next speaker. He was the chief deputy whip — a top leadership job. I knew each potential rival had detractors. Hastert had none.
I jumped on that story as the House members were taking their impeachment votes gambling I could do justice to both.
That day, an Illinoisan from the Chicago suburbs maneuvering to be Speaker was – to me – as important as the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.
At 12:15 p.m., Hastert was huddling in meetings with the top GOP leaders, including Gingrich and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a powerful but unpopular Texan.
After a whirlwind campaign, by 7 p.m. Hastert clinched the speakership.
That Saturday, I wrote the main Clinton impeachment story, the Hillary Clinton sidebar and a definitive article about Hastert poised to lead the House.
What I did not know that Saturday – and no one knew that day – was that Hastert was hiding his own horrible history of sexually abusing teenage boys while he was the Yorkville High School wrestling team coach.
If only we had known.
Shimkus called Dec. 19, 1998 “a huge, long day,” when I asked him about his recollections Tuesday. “It was a very crazy day.”
Rush remembered Livingston’s Saturday morning speech. “I was on the floor when it happened. We were in shock when he made that statement.” There was a sense of grand “theater” as events unfolded, just like in a “stage play, a Greek tragedy.”
Davis said, “I can recall though, the mood. I’m saying even though Clinton was in fact impeached, I’m not sure the people felt that the country was in jeopardy.”
You know where I’ll be Wednesday. As I am writing this, an email from the House Press Gallery staff arrived, a note about history:
“You have been assigned a seat in the press gallery overlooking the House Chamber for the debate and vote on H. Res. 755 – Impeaching Donald John Trump, President of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.”