TOPICS > Politics

Speaker Dennis Hastert?

December 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The man who would be speaker. We begin with this report from Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW in Chicago.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When Newt Gingrich officially steps aside as Speaker of the House on January 6th, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a relative newcomer on the national political scene, is expected to take his place. Hastert’s election as speaker was all but certified late Saturday afternoon, at the end of a day already ripe with dramatic events. The House of Representatives had just approved articles of impeachment against president of United States for only the second time in history. During the debate leading up to it, Louisiana’s Bob Livingston, two nights before admitted to having had extramarital affairs, abruptly announced he would not stand for election as speaker when the new Congress convened in January. House Republicans were shaken, and regrouped behind closed doors. The later emerged a new consensus candidate for speaker, Dennis Hastert.

SPOKESMAN: I’m supporting Mr. Hastert; Dick Armey is supporting Mr. Hastert, I think, and Tom Davis is supporting Mr. Hastert. There is wide support among a lot of the moderates in the conference, as well as conservatives, and if you even look across the aisle, we think he can be a very healing influence on the House, which is what we need at this time.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hastert is married and is the father of two boys. He’s a former high school teacher and wrestling coach. As a three-term Illinois state legislator, Hastert once was on the official welcoming committee for a visit by President Ronald Reagan. In 1987, it was President Reagan welcome Hastert to Washington has the newly-elected congressman from Illinois’s 14th district, which includes the town of Dixon, Ronald Reagan’s birthplace. Hastert’s sudden ascension to speaker is the biggest news ever to hit his hometown of Yorkville, which sits quietly along the Fox River about an hour’s drive west of Chicago. At Republican Party headquarters Sylvia Plecher says she was ironing on Saturday when she heard that one of their own was in line to become speaker.

SYLVIA PLECHER: I almost dropped the iron. I was just — I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: When Hastert stepped off the plane in Chicago Sunday night, he too still was stunned by the rapid change of events.

DENNIS HASTERT: It’s good to be home. It’s been an unbelievable three days in Washington. We’re very humble and very excited about the prospects before us — that it will be the second speaker of the house that the state of Illinois will have. We had one about a hundred years ago. And we’re working to — would put our name forward — we’re working to get support across the Republican conference. We’ll be continuing to work in the next couple of days.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At home in Yorkville, Hastert is called “coach” as often as he’s called congressman. The excitement over his 1976 state championship wrestling team still remains. Fellow teacher Bob Frye says Hastert’s strong people skills have done him well.

BOB FRYE: He’s able to talk to different kinds of people, with different agendas, and get them together, because he works at it. I mean, he works hard at that, as he worked hard as a wrestling coach. He said very studying, calming influence, and, boy, if we ever needed somebody like that, we need him right now.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The district Hastert represents is solidly Republican. Voters from the district’s small towns and farmlands gave him a four to one margin over his last opponent. A former student of Hastert’s, Tom Cross, now holds the seat in the state legislature Hastert once held. Cross says he would label Hastert a conservative, but insists he’s not bound by a conservative agenda.

TOM CROSS: Tom DeLay is called the hammer. I think maybe in this scenario Denny ought to be called the doctor, because he — we’re going to need to repair this country because people have apathy, and they’re cynical right now, more so than ever. And I think Denny can do that and take us – the Congress in that direction.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Congress, Hastert currently sits on both the Commerce and Government Reform and Oversight Committees. He played a major role in passing elements of the House Republicans’ Contract With America in 1995 and led the fight to repeal the Social Security earning tax, restoring full benefits to seniors who continued to work.

DENNIS HASTERT: This tax bill does two things that will help older Americans. First, it repeals President Clinton’s Social Security tax that he passed over Republican objections last year, and, second, it increases the earnings tax so that more seniors will be able to work without getting taxed at a rate twice the amount that millionaires have to pay.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hastert was the only House Republican on Hillary Clinton’s health care task force in 1992. And last July, Hastert unveiled the House Republicans’ plan for HMO reform.

DENNIS HASTERT: This afternoon we’re introducing patient protection act because we are intent on protecting patients and guaranteeing choices without the heavy hand of big government.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hastert also holds the title of chief deputy whip among House Republicans and at times has shown his partisan side. When the House Ethics Committee dismissed several charges against Newt Gingrich in 1995, Hastert took the offensive against Democrats.

DENNIS HASTERT: The Ethics Committee has finally reached the unanimous conclusion about the wild attacks that have come from liberal Democrats against Speaker Newt Gingrich, much ado about nothing.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And this past August Hastert blasted Attorney General Janet Reno for not seeking the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate possible campaign fund-raising abuses by the Clinton campaign.

DENNIS HASTERT: It’s the recalcitrance of this administration, the Department of Justice, not to name an independent counsel, to let the fox in the chicken coop make the decision on who’s guilty, who’s not guilty, what’s going to – information is going to flow out – what information is not going to flow out. And – I’ll tell you – representing the American people – most people are just a little bit sick of this.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hastert has maintained a low profile since returning home to Illinois. He had no comment as cars rolled into his driveway on the outskirts of town. Dallas Ingemunson, chairman of the Republican Party in Hastert’s district, says the future speaker most likely will keep the same low profile as speaker.

DALLAS INGEMUNSON: Newt used the bully pulpit a lot; Denny won’t do that. You won’t probably see Denny in front of the TV cameras as much, and you’ll see him trying to accomplish a slower direction in his goals, and they’ll probably be a little more fundamental and a little more – acknowledging that we have a Democrat Party too and we have to work a little bit together, and I really think he can do that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: If there is a blot on Hastert’s record, it’s the 44 overdraft he accrued during the 1992 House banking scandal that rocked both parties. But Ingemunson says there has been no other hint of personal scandal.

DALLAS INGMANSON: Not at all. No, rest assured that there is nothing there. There are no skeletons that he has to his background.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And people in Hastert’s district don’t expect that to change.

MAN: He’s been in Congress 12 years. He’s still the same guy he was when he left 12 years – you still see him at the post office. You still see him in the coffee shop, and he’s still – he doesn’t have Potomac Fever.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But once elected speaker, Hastert will have to deal with the reality of spending more time along the Potomac River and less time along the Fox River.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now for analysis on the speaker-to-be we turn to our NewsHour regulars – syndicated columnist Mark Shields and the “Wall Street Journal’s” Paul Gigot. They’re joined tonight by Bob Walker, who served as a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania for 20 years before retiring last year. He worked closely with Dennis Hastert as part of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s leadership team when Republicans first took control of Congress. He’s now president of the Wexler Group, a Washington lobbying firm.

MARGARET WARNER: What do we need to know about Dennis Hastert?

BOB WALKER: Well, I think what you have in Denny Hastert is somebody who is literally a work horse, somebody who has played a big role behind the scenes, who has a very strong institutional view of the House of Representatives, who tries his best to be a bridge builder, both within the party and across the aisle, who has worked on substantive issues, and has made a real difference in carrying the party on those issues. He’s somebody who I think most members of the Republican Conference would regard as a friend. I know I do, having worked with him for a long time, and we’ve been on opposite sides from time to time, but we still remain friends, and that’s the kind of person that Denny Hastert really is?

MARGARET WARNER: And what you add to sort of the picture of him is a man that we saw in this piece?

BOB WALKER: Well, it just struck me as we saw in the piece that here is a real typical middle-class American who is going to become Speaker of the House, and the kind of small town background, all of that, I think, are the credentials that he brings to the job that make him rather unique, and I think will serve him well in the divisions that are now affecting the Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I gather you have talked to him since last Saturday when all this?

BOB WALKER: I talked to him on Sunday at some length, that’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Why does he want the job? What does he want to do? I mean, is there a Hastert agenda, a vision?

BOB WALKER: Well, he said to me it was not a job that he sought, that all of a sudden people began to coalesce around him and obviously he wanted to be of service if he could. I think now what you will find is that he does have some fairly strong views on issues. He said his agenda was going to include tax cuts; it’s going to include Social Security reform and a number of things that the party has defined as being important. But he’s also been a hard worker on the issues such as drug abuse and is going to try to move that, and he’s been our leader on health care. So I think that you’re going to find him very interesting to try to do something in the health care area.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain, Paul, this guy who’s so little known suddenly emerged as “the” choice?

PAUL GIGOT: Battle fatigue, Margaret. I mean, I think the Republicans – having gone through the ordeal of impeachment – suffered some casualties of their own. Newt Gingrich first had a rough election, and then the last three or four years under Newt Gingrich haven’t been all that easy, and going through impeachment – and suddenly Bob Livingston resigns and we say, oh-oh, we don’t want to have another fight, another leadership fight, so one by one some of the other possible choices dropped out and Denny Hastert seemed to everybody – geez, he’s the compromise choice; he’s somebody who can smooth out the rough edges everywhere. He appeals to Bob Michel, the former leader, moderate from Illinois on the left, on the moderate side, and then Tom DeLay. He’s very close to Tom DeLay, the whip and a real conservative. And that represents breadth in the Republican Conference.

MARGARET WARNER: So what kind of speaker do you think he’ll be?

MARK SHIELDS: He’ll be a speaker — I think Bob Walker put his finger on it – he’ll be different from what we’ve had. This is a man who comes from Illinois. Illinois is a state that is about as much of a crossroads politically as any in the nation. Only twice in a hundred years has Illinois not voted with the winning presidential candidate. They deserted Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Jimmy Carter in 1976. It’s a state that’s produced Joe Cannon, the speaker of the House, Republican, and Everett McKinley Dirksen, Republican Senate leader. And I think that he comes from the kind of a state where to do business in Springfield, Illinois, where he served in the legislature, you had to go across the aisle, and you had to work, and I think he’ll be a lot less of an architect with a cosmic, global vision and probably less of a face in a public voice of the party, but I think he’ll be the speaker that most of us grew up with, whether it was Tip O’Neill or Carl Albert or Joe Martin or Bob Michel, who, of course, wasn’t the speaker, but I think he’ll be an institutionalist.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Paul, how is regarded by the more hard-line conservatives, some in the class of ’94, who actually ended up making life difficult even for Newt Gingrich at the end?

PAUL GIGOT: They all like him. They all like him personally, and they think he’s plenty conservative for that. I mean, this is a guy who comes up on the floor. He doesn’t stride up to you; he sort of ambles up to you and puts a hand on your form and he says, now, what can I do for you, how can I get your vote?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a nice thing to hear.

PAUL GIGOT: He doesn’t come in and say, I’m going to break your knees. He says, you know, what can I do for you, and he does that to moderates because that’s his job. He represents, I think, about half of the whip operation, frankly, on the Republican side. Tom DeLay is going to miss him in that whip organization, so he’s not somebody who’s made a lot of enemies, so everybody likes him, and those personal qualities. I mean, he’s a wrestling coach. Newt Gingrich is a professor; he’s a wrestling coach. Tells you a lot there.

BOB WALKER: Think about being chief deputy whip, having been one, the chief deputy whip has – one of their prime jobs is to understand what the members’ districts are like. And so here’s a guy who understands what every member of his conference has in terms of a district and knows when they can be with you and when they can’t. And so he’s somebody who’s going to understand the dynamic of what’s happening on issues as it relates to his own conference and probably also to the Democratic Caucus – a very interesting guy to have in the job as speaker.

PAUL GIGOT: I think the challenge he’s going to have, Margaret, is he’s – as speaker-is he’s going to have to step out of that internal House psyche a little bit and begin to lead some. He’s going to have to push some ideas because you’re going to need ideas to lead a House. You can’t just be a broker, which is what he’s been. And that’s going to be a real challenge for him.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is going to be the hardest part of this job for him?


MARGARET WARNER: Or for anyone?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, for anyone – I mean, it’s a fractious party right now. I mean, it’s a party with real problems, a party that rebuked – lost two leaders in the space of six weeks, that really doesn’t have – that’s found its own agenda neutralized in part by the political adroitness or agility of Bill Clinton, that the traditional issues don’t work for the Republicans the way they did in the past – whether it was crime or welfare. And so he’s there, present at the time of the rebirth of the party. The advantage he has – it strikes me as not only the Illinois background, but he has a solid district. He has a district that is 20 percent more Republican than is the – than is the nation. So I mean he doesn’t have to worry – like Tom Foley, for example, the last Democratic speaker, in 1994 lost his seat – he has some latitude to move within his own district.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark, one of the things that struck me reading all the editorials about him today – and they’re mostly very glowing – but all of them – the Times, the Post, David Broder in the Post, and the Journal all said he has to demonstrate his independence from Tom DeLay. One, do you agree with that, and two, how do you do that? How does he do that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think – I mean, he was Tom DeLay’s campaign manager when Tom DeLay ran for whip, and so I mean it isn’t like he was created by Tom DeLay; he was with Tom DeLay earlier. I mean, it’s a friendship that pre-dated this elevation on his party -but I think that’s a suspicion certainly in Washington, certainly among those Republicans – there’s no question that Tom DeLay emerged in the past six weeks as “the” dominant force within the House Republican Caucus. I mean, Bob Livingston, for his own reasons, didn’t want to get involved in the impeachment. Newt Gingrich had kind of checked out, and so Tom DeLay – nature abhors a vacuum – so does Tom DeLay – and he grabbed it, and he became the face, and he’s known not always affectionately as the hammer. So at some point then he has to – is going to establish that he’s the speaker and Tom DeLay isn’t – and I think he’s smart enough and shrewd enough to probably pick the right setting to do it.

BOB WALKER: And I agree with what Mark has said, but I mean, I think what we need to understand about him is he’s really a protégé of Bob Michel’s. He is not just somebody who came into Congress –

MARGARET WARNER: The former majority leader.

BOB WALKER: — and immediately allied with Tom DeLay. He is somebody when I first met him was introduced to me by Bob Michel, who said that this is somebody that you ought to get to know – and so Hastert really comes from that kind of a background. He’s also somebody who is perfectly willing to be a challenger to Tom DeLay on issues when he didn’t agree with Tom, even though they were working together in the same whip organization. I sat in meetings with the speaker’s advisory group where we both served together in the 104th Congress and Denny often challenged Tom in those meetings. So this is not going to be something where Denny Hastert has to follow Tom DeLay’s lead. I think he’s perfectly capable of exerting leadership on his own.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Paul, on the impeachment front it’s been three days since the president was impeached. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk, a lot of conversation in the Senate, even some members of the House now apparently having – I don’t know if I would say second thoughts but moderates writing a letter to the Senate saying consider censure. Where do you think things stand now three days after the vote?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t make too much of that letter from those moderates. They have a hard time delivering their own votes, much less anybody else’s frankly. And this has gone from the House now – the action is all in the Senate – and I would say that the most interesting story so far is the White House reaction. You almost think that they don’t think he’s been impeached. And I think they’re in danger of making the same mistake they made after the election in the House when they thought we don’t need really to deal with the Republican – Republican moderates; we’ve got public opinion on our side, and we can get away without any kind of censure or negotiation. That ended up getting him impeached. Now with the Senate they seem to be saying we’ve got the votes, the Democrats aren’t going to vote to remove us, so we don’t really have to deal very much, and I think that that might hurt them because it makes it more difficult for some of those Republicans to come across and do a censure deal with Democrats.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s the way the president is coming across?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with Paul and I disagree. I agree with Paul on the – on the White House handling of it. I think the Republican House moderates when last Paul and I were together were being praised as thoughtful, serious, solemn people who are voting their conscience.

MARGARET WARNER: That was Saturday.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s Saturday. Now on Tuesday they’ve abandoned ship, and they seem to want to have it both ways. I mean, these are people who want to vote for impeachment and now want to back off – that don’t want to be any part of the further effort for – and probably more to join – maybe not after this. But it strikes me that the White House – that the president’s remarks on Saturday belied a tin ear once again. He has never –in my judgment – recognized the enormity of what he did over the past eight months – keeping this in personal terms – he apologized for his personal misconduct, I mean, rather than apologizing to the nation – to the friends he’s betrayed – to the staff he let down and all the rest of it – and to what he’s done for the office, itself, and I think that is a serious mistake, and compounded by the fact the first thing the White House did was to float the idea of challenging the constitutionality of the House impeachment based on a lame duck. Now that is loophole; that’s legalism; that’s exactly what Bill Clinton should not be. In my judgment, Margaret, what Bill Clinton ought to do is he ought to insist on a trial – he ought to go to the floor – the well of the Senate, and he ought to answer questions, because the only chance of rehabilitating his presidency is to win an acquittal verdict in the Senate – not a censure deal – not a deal brokered by somebody else – but to go all the way.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think the thinking is – and I know there’s not just one thinking – or even two in the Senate right now?

PAUL GIGOT: There’s 100 thinkers in the Senate right now. I don’t think anybody really knows. Most of those Senators are out of town, but I would say the Senators to watch are Robert Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, who’s the protector of the history and protocol in the Senate, and has had some critical things to say about the president, and then Trent Lott on the Republican side, because he has to make – because if any Republicans are going to go against him and deal with the Democrats, they’re going to have to deal with Trent Lott and Trent Lott right now is in a tough spot because the House members – Republicans – put themselves on the line, they took a big risk, and Trent Lott has to make sure he doesn’t cut a deal too prematurely, too quickly that looks like he’s leaving the House Republicans out to dry.


MARK SHIELDS: The Senate – I think Senator Byrd does play an important role – there’s no question about his institutional memory. I think that the White House has to – have a strategy for dealing with the Republicans because they did not have a strategy for dealing with Republicans in the House, and as much respect as I have for George Mitchell, as much admiration as I have for what he’s done in Northern Ireland in achieving peace in that troubled land, I think George Mitchell would be the worst choice for the White House to have.

MARGARET WARNER: The former Senate majority leader.

MARK SHIELDS: Former Democratic majority leader who continually outwitted the Republicans and made them angry all the time he was majority leader.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thanks, Mark and Paul. And thanks, Bob Walker, for being with us.