“The Gentleman From Montana” and “The Gentleman From Wyoming” were two of the titles being kicked around.
But Frank Capra, the film’s director, always felt the story should take place in rural Illinois. That was a place, Capra felt, where an unremarkable but stout-hearted American could go from the open prairie to the marbled halls of Washington, D.C., and defeat the forces of political greed and corruption that were strangling our democracy.
The title of the movie was changed to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and up to a point, Denny Hastert could have played a good Mr. Smith.
Not because he looked like Jimmy Stewart, who played the title role. (Actually, Hastert, for whom the term “avuncular” could have been coined, was a pretty good physical match for a character in another Capra classic: Uncle Billy from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”)
But Hastert, a Republican, had certain Mr. Smith-like qualities. He worked in the family businesses — on the family farm and as a fry cook in the family restaurant — and then became a wrestling coach in rural Illinois and then was elected to fill a House to do good for the people in our nation’s capital. (In the movie, Stewart is appointed to fill an unexpired Senate seat.)
But Hastert has this skill. He is good at making dough — some of which sticks to his fingers. When he entered Congress in 1987, he was worth between $50,000 and $100,000. When he left Congress in 2007, he was worth between $3.1 million and $11.3 million.
How’d he do it? In some cases through land deals that could have come straight out of “Mr. Smith.” In the movie, an evil cabal of politicians and a media kingpin buy up land for the Willet Creek dam project. The cabal intends to drive up land prices and reap huge profits upon selling the land.
In real life, Hastert and two cronies bought up land for the “Prairie Parkway,” a highway in northern Illinois. Hastert kept his investment hidden in a blind trust while backing the project in Congress, earmarking more than $200 million for it in a federal transportation bill.
A few months later, the trust sold the land to a developer, and Hastert made a cool $3 million. The highway, fought by environmentalists, was never built.
Hastert would go on to become the longest-serving Republican House speaker in history and then left Congress to become a lobbyist and make millions more.
But federal investigators noticed that Hastert was withdrawing money from his bank accounts in a hinky way. (“Hinky” is an old-time Illinois political term meaning “overly fragrant.”) Hastert was allegedly withdrawing chunks of money just under the $10,000 limit at which banks had to report such transactions to the feds.
A federal grand jury indicted Hastert last week for paying $1.7 million of hush money to a former student, with an additional $1.8 million to go. Published accounts say the money was used to keep the former student from going public with allegations that Hastert sexually molested him while the kid was still in high school. Hastert was also charged with perjury for lying to federal agents about the withdrawals of money.
The residents of Yorkville, Illinois, where Hastert taught wrestling, were dismayed more than shocked. Though Hastert’s first alleged payment of $1.7 million is not exactly pocket change, nobody seemed surprised that a former high-school coach could be tossing around that kind of dough. Hastert was in politics, after all, which is a dough machine.
And a certain historical irony was noted by many regarding Hastert’s rise to power and his current fall from grace.
It begins with a sex and perjury scandal: the Monica Lewinsky affair. Newt Gingrich, then Republican speaker of the House, pushed for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, even though Gingrich was having an affair with a congressional aide at the same time.
Gingrich resigned and was succeeded by Bob Livingston, who announced on the day of the impeachment vote that he was resigning because it had been revealed he was having an extramarital affair.
Livingston was succeeded by Dennis Hastert, who is currently hiding out Lord knows where but, according to WBBM-TV in Chicago, is telling friends that he is really, really sorry to put them through this ordeal.
And he wants them to remember one thing. “I am a victim, too,” Hastert is telling people.
A jury might buy it. Last week, Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was asked about the Hastert scandal by The Washington Post.
Barbour replied: “It doesn’t matter a bit politically. Democrats hope it does, but I don’t think so.”
Barbour may be right. A former speaker of the House is indicted for having sex with a teenager, paying him hush money and then lying about it to the FBI, and “it doesn’t matter a bit politically”?
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe Mr. Smith should have stayed in Washington and made a bundle.