House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert began his day yesterday explaining that he really does not want to see New Orleans bulldozed, and he ended it defending his absence from the Capitol when Congress approved a $10.5 billion hurricane aid package. In between, a former president hinted he would like to throttle the Illinois Republican.
Hastert was still reeling from reaction to his comments earlier this week about the storm-ravaged city. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said in an interview with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of dollars rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he told the paper, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
Hastert later issued a statement saying he was not "advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated." But Louisiana Democrats were incensed. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco demanded an apology. "To kick us when we're down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left," she said, "is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position."
In Syracuse, N.Y., former president Bill Clinton was discussing New Orleans's dilemma when someone described the speaker's comments. Had they been in the same place when the remarks were made, Clinton said, "I'm afraid I would have assaulted him."
Hastert again tried to smooth things over. Shortly after a small number of House members unanimously approved the $10.5 billion relief plan at about 1 p.m., he issued a statement saying, "Our prayers and sympathies continue to be with the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In times like these, it is more important than ever for Americans to stand united in helping our fellow citizens."
But there was one problem: Hastert was not in Washington, and his top lieutenants had to oversee the vote. He was in Indiana attending a colleague's fundraiser, staff members said, and he later attended an antique car auction.
By 4 p.m., Hastert had reached the Capitol, eager to explain his tardiness and to try again to show his solidarity with Katrina's victims. The Indiana fundraiser, he told reporters, had been on his schedule "for a long, long time."
"Yes, I went to a charity auction," Hastert continued. "I took one of my cars and sold it for tens of thousands of dollars. And that money will go to hurricane relief efforts."
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.