Hastert's Team Mentality to Be Tested as Foley Scandal Unfolds

By Michael Grunwald and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 16, 2006

On a table near the desk of the speaker of the House, nine bears sit in a wooden rowboat, eight with oars and one in charge. But the boat can't move unless the oars all row in the same direction. That's why House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bought it.

Ever since an odd combination of scandal and turmoil catapulted Hastert into the speaker's job in 1999, the beefy former wrestling coach -- who's a bit bearlike himself -- has pushed House Republicans to work as a team. And he's had remarkable success. Largely unknown outside Washington, routinely underestimated as a powerless figurehead inside Washington, the accidental speaker has helped unify his fractious caucus, promote President Bush's agenda and expand the House's GOP majority.

"That rowboat is how he sees his job," said lobbyist David Thompson, a former Hastert aide. "He wakes up every morning thinking about how he can help the Republican team."

But now the Republican rowboat is leaking, and the longest-serving GOP speaker in history is at the center of the storm.

As investigators probe whether Hastert ignored warnings about former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Democrats across the country are portraying him as a symbol of a see-no-evil Republican House. They say Hastert's intense partisanship repeatedly blinded him to GOP misconduct -- not only Foley's inappropriate electronic messages with teenage pages but the corruption of lawmakers such as Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), as well as Bush's missteps in Iraq and New Orleans. Even Hastert's defenders acknowledge that his top priority as speaker has been protecting the GOP majority, not investigating the president or his own caucus.

Hastert doesn't seem capable of intense anything; he has a conservative voting record but a moderate temperament. He looks like a cross between actor Wilford Brimley and Jabba the Hutt, and his unassuming Midwestern public demeanor makes for dull television. He has shown none of the restless intellectual energy of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the frenetic revolutionary who preceded him as speaker; and he has often been dismissed as a frontman for former majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the conservative firebrand who anointed him.

Hastert does not deliver the polished speeches and Sunday-show ripostes that typify leadership in Washington. But he sees himself as a coach, and his overriding goal is to help his team -- the Republican caucus, not the House. That team has enjoyed quite a winning streak over the past seven years. Republicans agree that if good-cop Hastert couldn't have done it without bad-cop DeLay, DeLay couldn't have done it without Hastert, either.

"Denny really smooths out the rough edges in the caucus," said former representative Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is now Bush's budget director. "He's a kinder, gentler guy, but when he puts that big arm around you and says he needs you, it's hard to say no."

Coach Hastert is still beloved by his players, which is why he's survived the Foley mess so far. They appreciate how he listens to their concerns, shares credit and works overtime to keep the team together. He schlepped to 42 districts in August to try to maintain the GOP majority; it's no coincidence that his political arm is called the Keep Our Majority PAC.

"No one ever thinks he's put himself ahead of the team," said Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), a 32-year-old Hastert protégé who chairs the Republican Policy Committee.

The question is whether Hastert's quiet commitment to winning at almost any cost will taint his legacy. He has always been loyal to team players like Foley, who defied his longtime supporters in the sugar industry last year to help Hastert pass a Central American trade bill. He eviscerated the House ethics committee after it admonished DeLay, and tried to change the House ethics rules to help DeLay stay in power. He didn't pay for a fundraiser he held at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's restaurant until reporters asked about it two years later; the same month of the fundraiser, he wrote a letter opposing an Indian casino that Abramoff was trying to kill, and received $27,500 from Abramoff and five Indian tribes.

Now Hastert finds himself disputing his leadership team over what he knew about Foley, insisting he did not know about Foley's inappropriate behavior until recently, while others say they warned him last spring. He is also under fire for a multimillion-dollar windfall he earned by buying land and then promoting a federal highway nearby.

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