Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) defied expectations when he opted to remain in the House after Republicans lost a majority — and he lost his Speakership — in November.
Plagued by health problems, a number of high-profile GOP scandals and a rank and file that was ready for a change in management, he easily could have chosen to end his run as the longest-serving Republican Speaker by resigning from office.
Yet Hastert has long been mindful that Speakerships in modern times do not end well. In his 2004 memoir, “Speaker,” he recalled reading an anthology on his predecessors in the post shortly after he was tapped for the top job in 1998.
“Most were Democrats who had labored in the fields for years. They kept climbing up the ladder, making it all the way to Majority Leader and then, finally, winning election as Speaker,” he wrote. “Then, after a year or two, they died. It happened over and over again. Not much future to this job, I thought.”
But instead of bowing out when the road forked for the GOP in November, Hastert has opted to stick around — at least until next year. With his retirement announcement Friday, he is seeking a graceful exit before the curtains close on a Congressional career that spans more than two decades.
“I think under most circumstances, the moment a Speaker faced what he faced a year ago he would have resigned, as [ex-Speaker Newt] Gingrich [R-Ga.] and others did in the past,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), a longtime Hastert friend and ally. Dreier said Hastert reminded him of Winston Churchill, who returned to the House of Commons after being defeated as prime minister to “fulfill the role of elder statesman.”
While recent Speakers such as Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Gingrich hold significantly brighter national spotlights, the media-averse, avuncular and verbally clunky Hastert easily transitioned back onto the bench with the rank and file when he lost the Speakership.
That was in large part because of a generous reserve of goodwill built over the years from his GOP colleagues, who overwhelmingly credit Hastert as the force that held a fractious and narrow majority together during eight of the 12 years of Republican control.
“During two decades of service in the House, Speaker Hastert has earned a reputation of being a steady, loyal and gracious colleague and leader whose personal integrity and respect for our institution is unparalleled,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “He ascended to the Speaker’s chair with the unanimous support of his Republican colleagues and will leave Congress as one of our most respected Members.”
Hastert largely was able to avoid the kind of partisan fights and verbal attacks lodged from and against his second in command, then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), but it took Hastert years to shake the perception that the more assertive DeLay was the one in control and he was the one who followed marching orders.
In hindsight, there is little to indicate that Hastert and DeLay’s relationship was built on more than the business of politics. Hastert told Roll Call in March that he still speaks to DeLay “occasionally” but said they no longer communicate “on a regular basis” since DeLay resigned from the House.
Regardless, Hastert and DeLay were an effective team that often used heavy-handed tactics to move their agenda. The most cited example of that is the 2003 House vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill during which Hastert held the vote open for nearly three hours — the longest roll call in House history — to get the votes to pass the bill. Democrats decried the move as blatantly unfair, and it prompted an ethics investigation into DeLay on his vote-getting tactics that resulted in an ethics admonishment for the Majority Leader.
Hastert made no apologies, recalling in his book that he told reporters after the vote, “I’ve been working this issue for 20 years and seniors have been waiting through three Congresses for a prescription drug benefit, so I don’t think that waiting an additional three hours to get it done is too much.”
The Medicare bill was only one example of how Hastert worked to enact an agenda outlined by President Bush, which at times put him at odds with his own Conference. “I think Bush would have been a one-termer without Hastert, I truly believe that,” said John Feehery, a former top Hastert aide who is now a lobbyist. “There’s no doubt about it, [Hastert] was the most important person in the House moving the president’s agenda. He’s the most underestimated and undervalued member of the Bush team in that sense.”
Feehery cited Hastert stewarding the passage of the 2001 tax cuts, Medicare, and in particular a series of defense and intelligence measures such as the USA PATRIOT Act after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think his greatest accomplishments are twofold, in both bringing the country together after 9/11 and moving all of the important legislation that happened as a result of that,” Feehery said. “I think that’s what he is most proud of.”
Members overwhelming credited Hastert’s leadership in the wake of Sept. 11 as what will secure his place in history. Dreier noted that there have been no terrorist actions on U.S. soil since. “That’s not an accident and due in part to Hastert’s leadership,” Dreier said, noting that Hastert often was willing to push legislation that was not politically popular to do what he believed was necessary to protect the country.
“His leadership after the 9/11 attacks helped strengthen our national security and prevent future attacks on the homeland,” added House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), who credits Hastert as a mentor.
Hastert’s tenure was not without folly. It was on his advice that the Conference changed internal rules in 2005 to protect DeLay’s leadership post as he faced a criminal indictment in Texas. The move later was reversed, but Members grumbled that Hastert was losing touch with the Conference in an effort to protect DeLay.
His office also was in the center of the controversy surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned just weeks before the midterm elections when it was revealed that he had sent sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage males he had met through the House page program.
There is no evidence that Hastert or anyone else knew of those messages before they were revealed in the press, but leadership offices and senior aides in Hastert’s shop were aware of a series of more innocuous e-mails sent to pages in the past.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct immediately launched an investigation. While the panel concluded that no one was guilty of wrongdoing, it chastised the Speaker’s office for showing an “inexplicable lack of interest” in a matter involving underage teens.
The panel further concluded that Boehner and Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) had informed Hastert about the e-mails despite the fact that Hastert testified that he did not recall such conversations.
His critics also have accused Hastert of contributing to a more partisan, divided atmosphere on Capitol Hill; the Illinois lawmaker had little to no relationship with Pelosi and then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) before her. However, neither party’s leaders in recent years have made bipartisan outreach a priority in a chamber that divides them by a thin margin.
In a statement, Pelosi lauded Hastert’s tenure. “Speaker Hastert has always placed a high value on public service, a calling he dedicated much of his life to as a teacher, coach, and member of the House,” she said. “He can take great pride in his record as the longest serving Republican Speaker, an accomplishment that is a testament to his leadership in the Republican Conference.”
While Hastert, 65, has not yet said what his future career goals are, sources close to him say they expect him to retreat back to Illinois. While his health always has been a concern — he is diabetic — he has dropped more than 50 pounds and counting since November.
Neither he nor his wife, Jean, has ever embraced Washington, D.C., life, and they own considerable farmland in the Midwest. Sources said they could see Hastert returning to his first profession of teaching, or earning a cushy salary as a corporate consultant. He has expressed no interest in becoming a lobbyist, and he has all but ruled out an ambassadorship — an avenue former leaders of both parties have pursued in the past after leaving Congress.
While Hastert likely will hold on to the distinction of longest -serving Republican Speaker for the foreseeable future, the jury is out on whether history will judge his Speakership as one of the greats. His allies would like to think so.
“The funny thing about Speakerships is they usually end badly, and usually in personal controversy,” Feehery observed. “But in the annals of the modern Speakership, I think Hastert’s will rank right up there with Sam Rayburn’s.”