Plain-Talking Hastert Poised to Be Speaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A01
After Newt Gingrich's fiery flameout and Bob Livingston's swift death by bad publicity, Dennis Hastert may be the perfect balm for a House Republican Party smarting from self-inflicted wounds.
The Illinois Republican who now stands poised to become the next speaker of the House was touted by supporters yesterday as a "workhorse, not a show horse," an affable former wrestling coach who speaks plain English, does the grocery shopping and has no designs on the presidency.
In short, Hastert emerged as the consensus choice for speaker because of what and who he is not.
"There is not a breath of scandal associated with Denny," said Brad Goodrich, deputy executive director of the Illinois GOP, referring to the marital infidelity that drove Livingston from the speakership even before he formally accepted it.
Just to be certain, Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) asked Hastert Saturday the question on many lawmakers' minds.
"I looked him right in the face and said, 'Can you withstand the scrutiny?'‚" recalled Manzullo, one of the social conservatives who regarded Livingston as severely tarnished. "He said, 'Yes.'‚"
With neither Gingrich's grandiose world vision nor Livingston's stature as a legislator par excellence, the 56-year-old Hastert is described as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker, more in the mold of his mentor, former GOP leader Robert H. Michel, or the late Democratic Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. His allies say he will provide a steady hand following the surprising GOP midterm election losses last month that left the party with only a six-vote margin in the new Congress.
His formal selection next month also would be a sign that congressional Republicans might return to the more routine legislative style that predated Gingrich's more aggressive speakership, while leaving the setting of a national GOP agenda to the party's presidential candidates.
Some Democrats said they hardly know Hastert after six terms in Congress and wonder if he will suffer from a "stature gap." Despite his warm relations with prominent moderates such as GOP Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and James C. Greenwood (Pa.), Hastert has a solid conservative voting record and was a fierce partisan in the political dispute over the upcoming census.
Democrats and even some Republicans also worry about his close ties to Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), one of several GOP leaders whose support was critical to Hastert locking up the job Saturday even before other potential candidates could enter the race. Some Democrats expressed concern that DeLay will function as de facto speaker.
But although many around Washington mumbled "Denny who?" as they sipped their morning coffee yesterday, the handful of influential Republicans who plucked Hastert from relative obscurity say he is his own man and can bridge the divisions in their own fractured ranks.
"He's the kind of guy we need in a healing situation because he gets along with everybody," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio). "He'll work with the conservatives, he'll work with the moderates, he'll work with the Democrats."
As Michel put it last night: "He's like an old shoe."
Adept at securing pork for his suburban district 30 miles west of the Chicago Loop, Hastert has displayed a respect for the House and its traditions that many Hill veterans admire but that some newer Republican lawmakers have ridiculed.
One fan, Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), remembers the day two years ago he asked for Hastert's assistance in securing a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Hastert said no. His reason was simple old-school politics: Others in Congress had been waiting longer. But two years later, Hastert delivered the coveted spot to Foley, earning a loyal ally and displaying his skill at Washington's ultimate inside game.
"That's why we respect him," said Foley.
Don't expect Hastert to turn up much on the talk show circuit, say his friends.
"He's not a guy who wants to be pushed out front and make statements on behalf of the party," said Robert Walker, a prominent former House Republican who drew the analogy to O'Neill. "He's very much of an inside operator who has tremendous loyalty from his caucus."
Some suspect Hastert's lightning-quick rise from deputy whip to third in line for the presidency was the work of DeLay, a conservative disciplinarian known as "the Hammer."
The two unlikely allies have a rich history together, dating back to when both were in the minority. It was Hastert who joined forces with DeLay to support Edward Madigan in the contest for Republican whip against Gingrich. They lost that fight, but when Republicans won control in 1994, Hastert ran DeLay's campaign for whip and defeated Walker, the close friend and preferred choice of Gingrich.
DeLay appointed Hastert as his deputy and the two share a staff and suite of offices on the first floor of the Capitol. Together they have built a vote-counting operation that is the envy of other Republicans who once had hopes of climbing the leadership ladder.
On Capitol Hill, Hastert lumbers down the marble hallways like a woolly bear, draping his beefy arm over the shoulder of a colleague as he tries to secure another vote for the piece of legislation of the day.
"He was always in the shadows, but he was always doing things," recalled former Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
In private strategy sessions, Republicans say Hastert has the confidence to speak up and disagree. But by the time he emerges, he is spouting the party line. On policy, he pushed for House passage of legislation allowing workers who switch jobs to maintain their health insurance and promoted a 1995 change raising the income levels at which Social Security recipients who also work may keep their full benefits.
Hastert was not available for interviews yesterday but said in a statement that he hopes to focus on Social Security, tax cuts and the war on drugs in the Congress that opens Jan. 6.
As a young man, Hastert worked in the family restaurant, The Clock Tower, in Plainfield, Ill., manning the fry vats and sweeping the floors, said his spokesman, Pete Jeffries. Today he enjoys fishing and visiting antique car shows. His wife, Jean, is a schoolteacher.
Above all, say his supporters, Hastert is a man of his word, a virtue that has seemed in short supply in Washington lately.
Last month, when House Republicans met to elect their leaders, many urged Hastert to challenge Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.). But Hastert already had pledged his support to Armey.
"He had the votes; they did the count," said Mike McKeon, Hastert's Illinois pollster. "He asked Armey if he could be released from his pledge and Armey said no."
So Hastert made calls on Armey's behalf, helping him win on a third ballot. Saturday night, Armey issued a statement endorsing Hastert.
Staff writers John E. Yang and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company