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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The Speaker who never was

By Adam Cohen

December 21, 1998
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EST (1954 GMT)

TIME magazine

Early Saturday morning before the impeachment vote, House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston called majority whip Tom DeLay with a piece of news: I'm resigning. When he made the same announcement on the House floor, it was his second bombshell in three days. The first was his forced confession--the media were about to out him--that "I have on occasion strayed from my marriage." Livingston gave no details, which left Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to spread around whatever he pleased. With no sign of proof, Flynt claimed four women had told his staff about past liaisons with Livingston. Flynt said he has a tape of Newt Gingrich's erstwhile successor engaging in "raunchy" phone sex.

Livingston's downfall was the handiwork of Flynt, who took out an ad in the Washington Post two months ago offering up to $1 million to any woman who could prove an affair with a high government official. Several respondents reportedly named Livingston, and suddenly Hustler--whose best-known editorial feature until now was a cover photo of a woman being fed into a meat grinder--was setting the agenda in the capital.

With Livingston out, the rush was on to fill the speakership. Even as the House was preparing to vote on impeachment and Livingston's corpse was still warm, G.O.P. leaders were just a few feet away tapping a successor. Dennis Hastert, a six-term Illinois Congressman, was the reluctant draft pick. "What's Dick going to do?" Hastert asked David Hobbs, chief of staff for majority leader Dick Armey, who was once considered a contender for the top spot. "I don't know," Hobbs answered. "What are you going to do?" Hastert responded, "I don't know." But before he had even decided he wanted the post, Hastert was already the front runner. Outgoing speaker Gingrich, whom Livingston had informed the night before, was buttonholing members on the floor. DeLay was harnessing his network of 64 vote counters on behalf of Hastert, who happens to be his chief deputy. Within five hours of Livingston's announcement, the race was won. "It's over," said a senior Republican aide. "Denny was the hardest one to convince."

Critics say Hastert--who, barring yet another surprise, will be elected in January--would be a DeLay puppet. The controversial whip could use him to push a confrontational agenda while protecting DeLay from becoming a Gingrich-like target. But supporters say the low-key Hastert--a former high school teacher and wrestling coach--could be a "healing agent" in a body that needs one. Still, it's too soon to predict that Congress will return to normal anytime soon. Flynt cheerfully declared last week that the Livingston reports were "just the beginning." He has a list, he said, of a dozen straying politicians, including one Republican Senator who participated in a "threesome." Hustler says it may reveal more names at the start of the New Year. Even with Livingston gone, the era of sexual scandal his name will be part of shows every sign of enduring.


Cover Date: December 28, 1998

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