On this week’s Past Present podcast, Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil Young discuss Dennis Hastert, Phyllis Schlafly, and Malia Obama taking a gap year before entering Harvard.
Former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for various crimes he committed trying to cover up his sexual abuse of wrestlers he coached many years ago. Niki contended the real surprise was that Hastert had been seen as a change from prior GOP leaders Newt Gingrich and Tom Delay who saw their careers ended by corruption scandals. Natalia noted the irony that the Mark Foley scandal had helped bring about the end of Hastert’s stint as Speaker. Neil discussed how Hastert had used the wrestling world to both target his victims and protect him from their accusations. Natalia observed that the Hastert scandal seemed to reveal that public discourse had finally decoupled pedophilia from homosexuality, something Niki remembered had been prominent in the 1961 public service film Boys Beware.
Conservative activist Phyllis Scholarly is fighting to control the organization Eagle Forum she founded 44 years ago. The 91 year old Schlafly is facing a coup from board members who are angry she endorsed Donald Trump rather than Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination. Niki argued Schlafly has always been more populist than conservative, noting she sided with the John Birch Society against the National Review in the conservative crackup after Barry Goldwater’s terrible loss in 1964. Natalia agreed, citing Claire Potter’s recent article that Schlafly has always operated as a populist against the GOP establishment she saw as “kingmakers.” Natalia also mentioned historians like Catherine Rymph and Stacie Taranto who have written about Schlafly’s influence on grassroots conservative politics.
Malia Obama’s Gap Year
Malia Obama has chosen to attend Harvard University, but she will delay her entry one year as she takes an increasingly popular “gap year.” Natalia noted that many of the formal programs students participate in require tuition, making them an option for only wealthier families. Neil thought Malia’s decision might partly be so that she can enter college after her father has left the White House and perhaps avoid some of the social media moments she’s endured as a daughter of the president. Niki explained our fascination with presidential children as a 20th century phenomenon tied to the increasing importance of the president as a personality and celebrity. Niki remembered Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, had been much in the public eye for her notorious antics. And she pointed to John F. Kennedy’s presidency, famous for photographs of his children, as a turning point in American fascination with presidential children. Neil argued the Clinton presidency had been another turning point, as they had asked the media to protect Chelsea’s privacy. But Niki responded that talk media had been cruel to Chelsea, including Rush Limbaugh saying she looked like a dog.