Analysis: Hastert Learned From Wrestling

The Associated Press
Friday, October 6, 2006; 6:58 PM

WASHINGTON -- A lesson from Dennis Hastert's years as a high school wrestling coach: There's no one to blame but yourself if you get pinned.

The speaker of the House appears to have pulled off an escape from a page scandal's hold amid calls he step down as the highest official in Congress, but the match is far from over.

The life's lesson is a blurb on the jacket of his 2004 autobiography, "Speaker."

Until now, Hastert's strength has been his ability to hold the party together and to steer White House priorities past House and Senate disputes on the Medicare prescription drug benefit, trade agreements, tax cuts and reduced spending on popular federal programs.

A heavyweight in terms of both girth and political power, Hastert is finding that strength tested by allegations his office and officials he appointed to run the day-to-day operations of the House brushed off or didn't act aggressively enough on complaints about ex-Rep. Mark Foley's conduct toward teenage pages.

One wouldn't be surprised if Hastert is kicking himself for getting into this mess. Hadn't he seen plenty of Capitol Hill leaders self-destruct before? Jim Wright, the late 1980s era Democratic speaker, out because of complications involving a book deal; one of Hastert's GOP predecessors, Newt Gingrich, forced out in a Caesar-like power play, even if the Senate wasn't the forum.

And Bob Livingston, who had to quit amid revelations of his extramarital affair amid the dominating Washington scandal of the day - President Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

"If they throw Denny Hastert off the sled to slow down the wolves, it won't be long before you'll be crying, 'Hey, you've got to throw somebody over because they knew about it too," said James A. Baker III, not an institutional giant of the legislative branch but, instead, an executive branch heavy and top political confidant and adviser to the first President Bush.

But if Hastert has been engaging in self-flagellation because of his own evident naivete in handling the Foley time bomb, he also had heavy-hitting backslappers to help him steady his feet. Even if, strangely enough, it came mostly from people other than his House GOP leadership lieutenants.

House Majority Leader John Boehner and House GOP Whip Roy Blunt were more tepid than touching in their public statements.

For some time, Hastert could boast the most fearsome of patrons and defenders in Tom DeLay. But with the former majority leader toppled by a lobbying scandal, Hastert was, this time, exposed. He was forced to go to the mat mostly uncounseled to defend himself against charges he allowed Foley to prey on teenage pages.

He did find support from the highest of places; President Bush was happy to weigh in with a public statement of support, then had his press secretary, Tony Snow, reiterate his backing to the White House press corps. He then telephoned Hastert Wednesday night to cheer him up. Baker argued that it would be wrong to make Hastert the scapegoat.

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