election will determine whether Republicans keep control
of the U.S. House, and whether Speaker J. Dennis Hastert
will get a third term. The past isn™t promising
by Lynn Sweet
Colline is a restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol, a popular
place for political fundraisers. On one July morning, about 40 lobbyists
show up to breakfast with U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and
write checks to his leadership fund.
arrives a few minutes after 8 a.m. with a security detail and Mike
Stokke, his chief political deputy, who is a former Illinois GOP
state central committeeman. As the lobbyists dine on eggs Benedict,
Hastert, given to massive understatement, admits its been
an interesting time since he became speaker almost four
serves up a story about how he has to get up as early as 5:15 on
the mornings he has a 7 a.m. White House meeting with President
George W. Bush. The four congressional leaders started having weekly
breakfasts with the president after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Hastert says he grabbed a suit one morning and didnt realize
until he was dressed that he had put on his tuxedo. Its a
benign self-deprecating yarn. Then Hastert moves on to more serious
matters: herding cats in the House.
a five-vote margin, all you have to do is make four or five people
unhappy and you cant get anything done, the Republican
leader says. The hard part of this job is just to govern,
with a small g.
Hastert faces another challenge. The November election will determine
whether his party will continue to control the House, and whether
Hastert, 60, will get a third term as speaker. But the former Yorkville
history teacher is running against history.
doing everything he can raising millions for GOP House candidates
at hundreds of events such as the La Colline breakfast to
avoid a repeat of this fact: The party out of power in the White
House has picked up seats in every presidents first midterm
election except 1934. The Republicans control the House by a narrow
margin, so voters in just a few districts could topple Hastert and
clear the way for House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri
to become speaker.
cant rest on star power. Hes big and beefy think
John Goodman or John Madden but most people couldnt
pick Hastert, who is third in succession to the White House
out of a lineup. Ive seen polling, says GOP pollster
Frank Luntz. He is not well-known. He has never been well-known,
and maybe that is why people trust him. He is content to play behind
is a fickle business, says Hastert a few weeks after the fundraising
breakfast. The most important issue in this business is getting
your message out back home. The November outcome really
depends on what happens with the economy and a lot of things, and
really what people are thinking two weeks before the election. I
think we have a good message to talk about.
there are 435 members in the House and all the seats are up, only
about 40 districts are in play for the 2002 elections. (The marquee
race in Illinois pits two incumbents against each other: Republican
John Shimkus of Collinsville and Democrat David Phelps of Eldorado).
Hastert talks through the vulnerable list fluidly. His August campaign
fundraising calendar put him on the road for three weeks in more
than 20 critical districts in 12 states, all west of the Mississippi.
to control of the House in 2002 =is money, and Hastert is an energetic
fundraiser. His political operation works in concert with the White
House political office and the GOP campaign committees. Between
January and July, Hastert has stumped in 28 districts in 24 states,
raising $7 million for GOP candidates. In 2001, Hastert headlined
227 events in 26 states, covering 49 districts. During the 1999-2000
cycle Hasterts first term as speaker he campaigned
for 126 House candidates in 36 states, making, all told, 655 events
and collecting about $20 million.
think that is my responsibility, =my political responsibility, to
help members to get elected, to find good candidates and to support
those candidates, says Hastert. Other speakers in other
parliaments dont take a political position. But this is a
political position, so I have a dual responsibility.
spacious office in the Capitol is part of a suite of grand, high-ceiling
rooms. When the flashy Newt Gingrich was speaker, the conference
room in the complex was dubbed the Dinosaur Room because
thats where Gingrich mounted the skull of a Tyrannosaurus
rex. Under Hasterts reign, the place has been renamed the
Lincoln Room, an apt tribute from an Illinois speaker.
office is full of memorabilia, from model cars an auto buff,
he owns nine antique cars, including a pickup truck and two fire
engines to African art, with a scepter from Kenya. There
is a statue of a fox on the prowl in front of the fireplace, a connection
to Hasterts home overlooking the Fox River.
a coffee table is a picture book of Luxembourg, where Hasterts
grandfather was born, and another book featuring photos of Illinois
landscapes. In a corner, there is a polyester baseball shirt
size XXL that says Coach Hastert, signed by GOP
House members. Hastert is a former wrestling coach who tries to
arrange his schedule so he can attend the annual NCAA wrestling
tournament. His small desk is in front of a window looking out over
the National Mall and the Washington Monument.
Dennis Hastert everyone calls him Denny grew up in
Oswego, the eldest of three sons of Naomi and Jack. Hasterts
dad operated a feed store before he started running restaurants.
attended North Central College in Naperville, which is affiliated
with the United Methodist Church, and transferred to the Christian
evangelical Wheaton College, where he graduated in 1964.
taught history and government at Yorkville High School and along
the way picked up a masters degree at Northern Illinois University.
He married Jean, now a retired elementary school gym teacher, in
managed to clear a path for his sons in Washington, too.
27, the oldest, in 1999 ran a record label and record store in DeKalb
known locally as Seven Dead Arson, a name inspired by a news headline.
After Hastert became speaker, Joshua moved to Washington and became
a lobbyist, one of the rare ones who work the Capitol with a pierced
ear. This summer, Joshua Hastert was named a principal member of
the lobbying firm Federal Legislative Associates.
Hastert says his father has not changed much as speaker. He says
key to his fathers style is making sure everyones
side is heard.
younger brother Ethan, 24, just wrapped up a stint as an aide to
Vice President Dick Cheneys chief of staff and is now at Northwestern
Universitys law school.
and Hastert know each other from Cheneys House days, and the
two went fly fishing last year in Wyoming. Hastert, says Cheney
in an e-mail, is only a mediocre fly fisherman. Hastert
agrees. Fly fishing takes a lot of skill and a lot of time
and a lot of patience. In bass fishing, you just lay the bait out
there and wait for a big old fish to hit it. This is Hasterts
approach to cutting a deal to pass a bill, to get something done.
last two years wouldve been far more difficult and much less
productive had it not been for the speaker of the House, says
enjoys a solid relationship with Bush. I think he trusts me
when I give advice. The president teased him about his weight
when the four congressional leaders met after July 4. The needling
seems to get to Hastert. Bush asked Hastert if he was in some holiday
parades. The trim Bush, winking at the others, asked, Did
is always giving me a jab about that, Hastert says. I
dont say anything.
is a diabetic who is supposed to watch his diet. He injects himself
daily with insulin in the thigh.
road to Washington, D.C., started in Springfield for Hastert, with
his 1980 election to the Illinois General Assembly. After three
terms, he won a congressional seat in 1986. He managed Tom DeLays
campaign for House Whip in 1994 and became the Texas Republicans
speakers job was thrust upon Hastert on December 19, 1998,
on a frantic Saturday when House members came to work thinking the
main item on their agenda was the impeachment of President Bill
flamboyant and controversial Gingrich, then House speaker, was quitting,
and his designated replacement, Bob Livingston, sent shockwaves
through the chamber when he announced his resignation without mentioning
the affair that forced his hand.
a combative personality with a long list of detractors, decided
not to run for speaker, a role Hastert would have supported. With
DeLays backing, and after a six-hour blitz, Hastert, to the
outside world an obscure lawmaker but in reality a consummate insider,
lined up the votes to become speaker. He was scandal-free, a conservative
who could build a bridge to the GOP moderates and a coach.
He was just what the frazzled and demoralized Republican team needed.
been effective from Day One, says GOP lobbyist Haley Barbour,
a former Republican National Committee chairman. Hes
done well. Hes a perfect guy for the time.
loyalty to DeLay, and the circumstances surrounding his selection,
gave rise to the notion, promoted by Democrats, that Hastert is
DeLays puppet. Hastert is willing to share power to
a degree if it suits him. Hastert established himself in
his own right after he led the House Republicans to victory in the
is true is that Democrats demonize DeLay and lay off the congenial
speaker. Does DeLay drag Hastert to the right? The conservative
Hastert generally does not travel down any path he does not wish
to take. If you look at my record in the Illinois General
Assembly, you look at my record in Congress, I have been pretty
conservative. I cant say I have been far to the right, but
I have been right of center pretty much consistently. And you know,
I cant say that Tom takes me to the right, says Hastert.
My record speaks for itself. Of their good cop-bad cop
routine he says, I think our two styles complement each other.
less-noted accomplishment is his relationship with the GOP moderates;
they rarely use the leverage they have to derail the agenda set
down by the White House and Hastert.
is unique in Washington. He is able to maintain his powerbase without
the media. He runs from the camera. He shuns the weekend talk shows.
Through July of this year, hes been on three weekend shows.
In 2001, he made only seven appearances with five of the bookings
coming in the weeks following September 11. His occasional Thursday
morning pen and pads with the congressional press corps
rarely yields a headline.Hes good at saying nothing
he does not want to say anything, says John Feehery, Hasterts
press secretary. He is the anti-Newt when it comes to that.
In a town that is media obsessed, Hastert is not consumed with the
press. Feehery prepares a one-page news summary for Hastert each
morning. While Gephardt cruises the Internet for stories, Hastert
never logs on.
relationship between Hastert and Gephardt is intriguing.
all-time low on the job came over the selection of a new House chaplain,
when Gephardt tried to use the chaplain as a wedge issue,
Stokke says. It was hideous.
set up a search committee, a process that ended up exploding in
his face. Three clerics were recommended by the panel. When the
Catholic was not selected, rumbles of anti-Catholic bias started.
Hastert was horrified. He ended up naming a Chicago priest, Father
wounded Hastert then said from the floor, I can only conclude
that those who accuse me of anti-Catholic bigotry either dont
know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making
these accusations. Gephardts staff says he did nothing
wrong. But the two men did not speak for a long time until
they found themselves together in a bunker on September 11, rushed
to a hiding place after the Pentagon was attacked.
is not a bad person, Hastert says, but my frustration
is you can never really sit down and talk to him and put something
together. It is always wait and wait and wait and wait.
inner circle consists of a small, trusted group of aides, mostly
all white and all male. Stokke, his political adviser, and Scott
Palmer, his chief of staff, have worked with Hastert for years.
They know Illinois politics as well as the national scene. While
in Washington, the three room together in a townhouse Hastert owns,
where none of them has cooked a meal since 1986. Says Hastert, I
made tea once. His sons also have bunked at the townhouse.
at La Colline, Hastert ticks off legislative accomplishments that
will give members something to sell in November. The House passed
a plan to help seniors pay for prescription drugs and beefed up
its corporate accountability measure in the wake of more company
the nation is at war, terrorism is a threat and, if the stock market
is tanking in November, Republican prospects will dim.
is optimistic as he goes through each House race while the lobbyists
listen. Says the speaker, I am constantly amazed, in this
climate, that we are in pretty good shape.
Sweet is the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau chief.
Issues, September 2002
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