Hastert Steps Up to Leading Role
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 5, 1999; Page A1
Outwardly modest, inwardly ambitious, incoming House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has climbed the political ladder not by soaring rhetoric or bare-knuckles bullying, but by mastering the art of making himself indispensable to the men who mattered most.
A protégé of the gentlemanly Republican leader Robert Michel, a lieutenant in Newt Gingrich's revolution and the right-hand man to the current whip, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Hastert has always been most comfortable outside the public eye. He has been the insider GOP leaders have relied on in recent years to gather the intelligence, craft the compromise and do the vote-counting that made them shine.
Hastert inherits a House badly divided by the impeachment of President Clinton and stung by the resignations of both Gingrich and the man who had hoped to succeed him, Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston. And as he makes the biggest leap of his life, the crucial question is whether this back-room operator has the leadership skills to seize command of his unruly party and forge ties with Democrats emboldened by their electoral gains last November.
While Hastert has mastered the nuts and bolts of legislating, helping pass key elements of the House GOP's "Contract With America" and securing government projects for constituents, he has never articulated the kind of grand vision offered by his predecessor. In an era where the speaker of the House has become a national party spokesman, the incoming speaker is not known for the pithy sound bites that modern politics demands.
But supporters say Hastert is the right leader for these tumultuous times. A lumbering man with an easy smile, Hastert has a great talent for coaxing votes out of recalcitrant lawmakers. Republicans describe him as a firm but fair chief deputy whip without a hint of scandal, no small qualification during a time when other politicians have been beset by questions about their marital fidelity.
"I see myself as a person who throughout my career has listened to people and tried to understand the issues they want to talk about," Hastert said in an interview yesterday. "I try to bring people together; I see that as my role."
"He is the best of what we think of as old school," said Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.). "People look at Denny and say, 'This is a guy who might be running an auto parts store downtown.' "
The man who as a boy delivered seed to Illinois farmers sounds almost awed about the prospect of occupying the third most powerful office in the nation, behind only the vice president in line of succession for the presidency.
"It's a very humbling experience," he said. "I'm just going to try to pull up every ounce of courage and strength . . . to do the best job I can."
His Midwestern sensibilities and avuncular style may have left the impression that Hastert's allegiances lie with the moderate wing of his party. But Hastert, whose district includes the birthplace of Ronald Reagan, is an evangelical Christian and a strong conservative whose ideology reflects the mainstream of his party in Congress; he opposes abortion, looks askance at government regulations and takes a hard line on the question of census sampling.
Still, Hastert offers himself as an honest broker who respects the institution of the House and sounds eager to refocus Congress on legislation rather than scandal.
Said the incoming speaker: "My philosophy in life is you need to be productive."
Hastert's stint as Pickerill's assistant was not atypical.
"The theme that runs through this guy's life is he's always been pressed into leadership," said Tom Jarman, a childhood friend who attended high school and college with Hastert.
The incoming speaker of the House is a man who "came up literally from the soil," as Illinois state Sen. Edward F. Petka (R) put it, an all-American boy who lives just a few miles from the town in which he was born. The eldest of three sons, Hastert was immersed in farming life early on, traveling with his father to deliver seed to the men who grew corn and beans around Oswego.
Hastert was never known as a politician in his 55-person high school class; a classmate earned the nickname "The Senator." But the quiet football and wrestling star was well-liked and a useful ally to his classmates, keeping teachers occupied when no one had completed their homework.
"He could keep the guy going the whole hour so we wouldn't have to turn our homework in," said Nann Armstrong, who shared a physics class with Hastert. "He had the filibuster in him a long time ago."
The home where Hastert grew up looks just as much a part of 1950s Americana as it did when he lived there, a sprawling gray prefab, split-level house with multiple additions set on four acres amid a cluster of houses in Gastville, Ill. Growing up across the road from his maternal grandparents, Hastert and his family lived a solidly middle-class existence, as Jack Hastert made a successful transition from selling feed to the restaurant business. His mother, Naomi, was an extrovert who constantly urged her sons to get the high school education she never received.
"We're country kids," said David Hastert, who is five years younger than his suddenly famous brother. "We had hogs and chicken and cattle."
A move to Wheaton College, the nearby evangelical Christian school known for graduates such as the Rev. Billy Graham, marked an abrupt change. Coming from a farming community that boasted a single black family, Hastert was thrust into a conservative but spirited campus, where students debated questions ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War.
Hastert's roommate, Jim Parnalee, with whom he transferred to Wheaton from North Central College, was the school's first student to be killed in Vietnam, and Hastert continues to visit the family each year in Michigan.
"We went to high school in 'Happy Days,' and went to college in the '60s," Jarman said, adding that Hastert remained firmly rooted with activities such as sports and a part-time job. "If you're a college wrestler and deliver milk at 5 in the morning, it's hard to go into philosophical despair. You don't have time."
Hastert himself never served in Vietnam, due to a wrestling injury, and he returned to the neighboring town of Yorkville to teach government and coach wrestling at the local high school. He would marry a fellow Yorkville teacher, Jean, and become the father of two sons, Joshua and Ethan, now grown.
Before his marriage, Hastert lived in a farmhouse with three other teachers, and the four bachelors quickly developed a reputation among the local farmers.
"Our pig roasts were legendary at that end of Kendall County. The farmers always gave us a hard time," joked Bob Evans, Yorkville High School's driver's education teacher and Hastert's roommate at the time. "I wish we had done all the things they said we'd done."
A Political Rise
Dallas Ingemunson, the Kendall County chairman, promoted Hastert. The young wrestling coach had run for office the year before, displaying a knack for grass-roots campaigning. And although he lost, Ingemunson reminded the bosses, Hastert had spent the intervening time wisely, volunteering for an influential state senator named John Grotberg.
Another man in the room had his own candidate. But when the first round of voting ended in a draw, Grotberg weighed in on his former intern's behalf and the deal was set.
Hastert developed a reputation as an effective dealmaker in the state House, asking his colleagues to write their spending requests on a notepad so he could carry them into negotiating sessions. He also proved to be a strong party leader, according to former state representative John Countryman (R), who served with Hastert on the Appropriations Committee.
"We had pre-meetings at 7 in the morning. He would say, 'Okay, Countryman, here's your point. This is where we don't want you to go.' So you know, you were coached," he said. "Most legislators at that point were waking up, drinking coffee and eating their bagels."
Hastert's mentor Grotberg went on to secure a seat in Congress, but when Grotberg fell ill with cancer in 1986, local GOP leaders again chose Hastert to run for the vacancy. While Hastert faced a relatively tough race that first year, he has won by comfortable margins in recent elections.
Today the 14th District has evolved from its rural roots into more of a bedroom community for Chicago, with Oswego's population mushrooming from several hundred in the 1950s to more than 9,000. It is also a Republican-dominated district, aided by the map Hastert helped draw at the outset of this decade. It has retained much of its small farming town identity, however, and Hastert still moves easily within the community.
In Congress, Hastert has played a key role on health care, census and drug policy issues. Initially tapped by then-House minority leader Michel to chair the GOP's health care task force, Hastert helped block Clinton's ambitious plan to reform the health care system.
Hastert also talked tough during a June 1994 hearing when then-Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler told lawmakers he could not release some information relating to the agency's probe of the tobacco industry because of "established procedures."
"You are telling us mumbo-jumbo," Hastert snapped, adding moments later, "Either you tell me what the established procedures are, or I think you are in contempt of Congress."
Hastert has confronted the Clinton administration on other sensitive political questions, such as how to conduct the 2000 census and reducing Americans' drug use.
While Democrats argue they can better account for hard-to-reach citizens by assessing 10 percent of the population based on representative samples, Hastert and other Republicans suggest that "sampling" is an inaccurate approach aimed at serving Democrats' political interests.
"The plan to count 90 percent is a fig leaf, a subterfuge, a sham designed to cover up their population polling scheme," Hastert argued in an August floor speech.
Hastert was similarly critical of Clinton's decision to cut funding for drug interdiction. "Today our children, in their schools, on playgrounds, in after-school environments, are reaping the deadly harvest of these ill-advised cuts," he said in September.
His years in the inner sanctum have paid off for Hastert's constituents. Last September, DeLay and Hastert slipped an extra $250,000 into the defense budget for "pharmacokinetics research." The money, it turned out, paid for an Army experiment with nicotine chewing gum manufactured by a company in Hastert's district.
At times Hastert has displayed a willingness to compromise, particularly in the areas of telecommunications and health care. He is widely credited with helping craft the 1996 bill guaranteeing health insurance to workers who change or lose their jobs.
"His expertise is not in being a policy wonk," said one White House negotiator who worked on what became known as the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill. "He is a people person; he recognizes how personality, politics and policy intertwine."
Last year Gingrich asked Hastert to ride herd over the warring factions inside the House GOP as it struggled to craft a "patient's bill of rights" to compete with Clinton's health care bill.
In weeks of early morning meetings, convened around the conference table in his first-floor office, Hastert displayed the patience that has made him a skilled carver of wooden ducks. He endured the public tirades of Rep. Bill Thomas, the mercurial Californian who preferred replacing employer-subsidized health care with a market approach, and the private threats of Rep. Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr., a Georgia doctor who gave party leaders heartburn with a bipartisan bill that would have exposed managed-care companies to additional legal liability.
"He was sometimes a traffic cop and sometimes he was a judge," said Thomas. "We always wound up in agreement; that's a major tribute to him in the way he deals with people."
Although many say Hastert resembles a bear in size and style, Thomas pointed to the images that adorn Hastert's Capitol office as a more apt analogy: "A fox is clever and cunning in being able to figure out a situation you're in, rather than just using brute force."
On the day Livingston announced he would leave Congress rather than stay and face a growing controversy over his acknowledged extramarital affairs, Denny Hastert sat in the back row of the House chamber, his hulking 6-foot, 220-pound frame filling the leather chair.
One by one, retiring Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) ushered Republican lawmakers to the darkened corner for a tête à tête with the man who now aspired to the top of the House. When it was Rep. James C. Greenwood's turn for an audience, the moderate Pennsylvanian immediately posed the question on many members' minds: What about DeLay?
Though their personalities offer a study in contrasts, DeLay and Hastert have a long and deep relationship that has weathered fierce intraparty rivalries and too-close-for-comfort floor votes. The pair first teamed up on then-Illinois Rep. Edward Madigan's unsuccessful race against Gingrich for minority whip in 1989. Although they lost, the relationship was sealed when Hastert ran DeLay's victorious whip race in 1994. Since then, Hastert has served as DeLay's second-in-command in what is widely seen as one of the most effective vote-counting operations on Capitol Hill.
"The concern many of us had was a sense DeLay has reached out to a variety of leadership positions and nobody wants to see too much power in any member's hands," Greenwood said. "Denny will have to prove he's his own man."
Although DeLay takes pride in their successful "good cop, bad cop" partnership, he dismisses criticism Hastert will defer to him.
"Denny is very much his own man," DeLay said in an interview, noting Hastert opposed efforts by DeLay and others to overthrow Gingrich in 1997. "We argue all the time."
Some suggest the DeLay-Hastert team is reminiscent of the unlikely matchup of Gingrich and Michel. "They complement each other," said Daniel J. Mattoon, a BellSouth lobbyist who has known Hastert for nearly three decades.
"He's not the kind you can push around," said Bob Evans, his longtime friend. "He's a competitor."
Staff writer Chuck Babcock and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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