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I’ll Say It Again: Hastert’s Reign Is Unprecedented

Well, readers, my last column touched a nerve — several nerves, in fact. Enough nerves that I have been told by several sources in the House that I will be persona non grata with the members of the House Republican Conference as a result of my comments about Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). [IMGCAP(1)]

I won’t be having lunch with the chairman of the Federal Election Commission soon, either. John Feehery, the Speaker’s indefatigable spokesman, has jumped in with a lively letter indicating that his long, slow burn about my positions and my writing had finally erupted à la Mount St. Helens (Letters to the editor, Oct. 4).

Now, I like to be loved the same as anybody. Building enemies and being shunned by powerful lawmakers is not something I relish. But I feel a responsibility as a columnist not to pull punches to curry favor. And I love the House enough that I want regular order and a reasonable fealty to the principles of the institution and the Constitution.

I didn’t intend to write another column right away on some of these issues. On the other hand, a couple of paragraphs on the Speaker is not enough to elaborate on the issues and their context. They need more explication and discussion, and Feehery’s letter provides a framework for that.

First, on George Soros. I have no affinity for Soros, his positions, or his actions in the 2004 campaign. If House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) or any other House Republican had suggested that Soros might be connected in some fashion to drug dealers, I would have viewed it as another regrettable instance of the coarsening of campaign rhetoric. I would have also viewed Soros as someone who can take it as he dishes it out, a man of sufficient resources and toughness to respond on his own, and one who clearly was asking for plenty of flak with his all-out involvement in the campaign.

But it was not DeLay, Blunt or Reynolds who did so. It was the Speaker of the House. And it was the Speaker of the House who said terrorists wanted Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to win the presidency. I spent a few hours looking at Nexis to see what Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) said during the 1988 presidential campaign, and what Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said during the 1996 campaign. I did not read everything, but I did not find any instance in which these Speakers attacked the opposition candidate personally, or suggested that America’s enemies were rooting for them.

Wright, for sure, was involved in the 1988 campaign. He was the frequent object of attack by George H.W. Bush and his surrogates over his ethics problems, in large part, presumably, to deflect questions and attacks about Bush’s ethical record as vice president. Wright, so far as I can tell, neither initiated in nor participated in the charges against Bush; he was just a convenient target.

There was one other instance where he, as Speaker, got involved in the campaign. Another Democrat in the House, Pat Williams (Mont.), took to the floor and accused vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle of hypocrisy. House Republicans objected vociferously, and demanded that Williams’ words be taken down. Wright, in the Speaker’s chair, agreed — to the dismay of his fellow Democrats.

Gingrich was plenty tough and plenty partisan — but he became a different figure when he moved from Minority Whip to Speaker. Gingrich had campaigned for his party’s majority by attacking the institution’s rot under Democratic rule. But once he became Speaker, his larger sense of institutional responsibility and historical perspective took over.

On foreign policy issues, Gingrich fancied himself as in the mold of the late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) — someone who believes that, when it comes to America in the world, politics stops at the water’s edge. On such issues as Bosnia and Kosovo, Gingrich was a model of bipartisanship at a time when other Republicans were challenging President Bill Clinton’s legitimacy as commander in chief. During the 1996 campaign he did not act as a hatchetman against Clinton — partly, no doubt, because Republicans had to sell themselves as a responsible majority to win their first re-election to the House majority in 70 years.

Speakers have partisan affiliations. But the role of Speaker is different, and special. The Speaker is the first officer mentioned in the Constitution. He is first and foremost responsible to the House as a whole.

It is at best insensitive when a Speaker becomes a partisan water-carrier in a campaign. It is offensive when a Speaker keeps a 15-minute vote open for three hours and takes the chief role lobbying on the vote on the floor, twisting arms and worse. It is doubly offensive when a Speaker, for the first time ever, escorts a Cabinet officer onto the floor to lobby alongside him during a vote. These are offenses not to me, but to the House itself, its traditions, its norms and its long-term interests.

Were there other highly partisan Speakers? Of course. Wright was fiercely partisan on issues. When he kept a 15-minute vote open for 30 minutes, House Republicans rightly screamed bloody murder. Then-Minority Whip Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) called Speaker Wright a “son of a bitch” after that incident — and it did not happen again.

Now, hour-long votes are routine. And, sad to say, I have yet to hear any of the Republicans who went ballistic when Wright crossed the line once now saying boo about what Hastert has done on a regular basis.

I disagree with the Speaker and many other House Republicans on how the House should make sure it can function after another catastrophic attack on Washington. But any reasonable reader of my column knows that I am far more offended by the casual and callous way the Speaker and other leaders have made that issue — the ultimate question of institutional loyalty, with no partisan coloration to it at all — into one of partisan division. The Senate, by contrast, has been impeccably bipartisan in its approach to continuity.

My unhappiness with Hastert is one of profound disappointment. When he ascended to the Speakership, I thought it was a good choice. He seemed to be the model “House guy,” in the mold of the great Rep. Bob Michel (R-Ill.), with a bit more partisan toughness but with a real appreciation for the institution. For whatever reasons, he has not behaved that way.

Of course, Hastert has been goaded by Democrats, as Wright and Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.) were goaded by Republicans. A true House guy transcends that and puts the interests of the institution ahead of other things.

Finally, a note on Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). Over the past year, I have written some very tough things about Dreier and his actions on continuity. I have been motivated by my passion on the issue, but also because I thought the issue was being made partisan in an unnecessary way. He has contributed to that dynamic. But during that time, I have seen Dreier on many occasions, social and professional. He has been unfailingly warm and polite. He is a gentleman. For almost 20 years, Dreier was a consummate House guy. I only hope he will do some tough self-analysis on his legitimate gripes about Democrats’ abuse of power when he was in the minority, and practice a little more of what he once preached.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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