Hastert recalls his ‘time in the backroom’

Greg Nash

He remains the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in U.S. history, having wielded the gavel during 9/11, the Afghan and Iraq wars, the Bush-Gore election battle, the Clinton impeachment and the passage of Medicare Part D.

But the road to the gavel began on a lark, when Dennis Hastert was a high school wrestling coach.

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“I wasn’t a political guy,” Hastert recalled in a recent interview with The Hill. “I was teaching, coaching, running wrestling clinics, driving a bus part-time.”

The former Speaker and 10-term congressman from Illinois reminisced about his career from his office at Dickstein Shapiro LLP in downtown D.C., where he is a member of the firm’s public policy and law practice. He said his decision to get into politics was partly motivated by his financial situation.

“I needed money. I asked for a raise. The school said we can’t pay you any more, you’re already at the top of the scale.”

They offered to make him a high school vice principal, but Hastert said he didn’t want that kind of headache.

“I read in the paper that our state representative was resigning, and I decided, ‘I can do that.’ ”

Hastert said he rounded up 600 names on a petition to run for office, and then got a call from the GOP county chairman.

“He said, ‘Who are you? I’ve already got a candidate.’ ”

Hastert was elected in 1980 to his first of three terms in the Illinois House of Representatives. He cut his teeth doing the political grunt work that became his hallmark — working across the aisle, forging alliances and getting results, like the passage of a new public utilities law that lowered costs in Illinois.

“I spent my time in the backroom,” he said, referring to both his state and national positions. “Sometimes arm-twisting, often giving people something to do. You have to bring them to the table. You have to believe in what you’re doing and pound away.”

A fiscal conservative, Hastert recalled an after-dinner chat with then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1993 that he used to point out the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats on the role of government. It took place while the Clinton administration was preparing its ill-fated plan for healthcare reform.

“I’d been appointed to the healthcare task force in the House, and had been working on health savings accounts, a market-economy type of healthcare reform.”

Clinton pooh-poohed the idea, Hastert recalled, and said the government would spend the money more wisely.

“We’re talking philosophy here,” he said.

“Republicans believe in the private sector. We believe that people can spend their own money better than the government can.”

Nevertheless, as Speaker, Hastert worked with President Clinton on several initiatives, including the New Markets Tax Credit program, a partnership between the public and private sectors aimed at revitalizing impoverished urban and rural communities, and Plan Colombia, where the U.S. aided the Colombian government in combating drug cartels.

But the “backroom” consensus-builder never imagined he’d become Speaker.

“The thing that drives politics is trust. If you have trust you can lead. Without trust, you can’t. That’s what happened to Newt [Gingrich].”

Gingrich, the Georgia Republican and political firebrand who preceded Hastert as the 58th Speaker of the House, confronted his congressional Waterloo in November 1998. Gingrich, according to Hastert, “bet the farm” that pushing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury regarding his affair with Monica Lewinsky would win seats for the GOP in that year’s midterm elections.

When Republicans lost five seats, Gingrich faced an angry caucus the Friday after the elections. Hastert was deputy whip at the time, and said he warned Gingrich he wouldn’t get the votes to be reelected Speaker.

“I said, you’ve got 16 to 18 people who won’t vote for you. You need to talk to them. That was around 10 a.m. At 2 p.m., he stepped down.”

The GOP caucus chose Rep. Bob Livingston (La.) to succeed Gingrich. But Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt, bent on exposing hypocritical Republicans for pursuing Clinton, outed Speaker-elect Livingston in December for a sexual affair. Livingston resigned the Speakership before assuming it and his seat in Congress.

There were other strong candidates for Speaker. But Dick Armey (R-Texas) was beat up from party infighting and Tom Delay (R-Texas) was considered too divisive. The party turned to Hastert, who had a reputation for working with centrist and conservative Republicans as well as Democrats. 

He took the gavel in 1999 and soon after was swept up in a series of monumental historical events, from the Clinton impeachment to the Bush-Gore recount fight to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“One of the first big things we did was work on terrorism insurance, to get the planes back in the air,” Hastert said. “Insurers and re-insurers were walking away. Flights could not resume without insurance. We did not have a lot of time. The economy was grinding to a halt.”

Within 10 days Congress authorized up to $10 billion in loans to airlines for insurance, and flights resumed.

On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan against the ruling Taliban for assisting al Qaeda.

The George W. Bush administration next took aim at Iraq, and sought to convince the public that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed a lethal threat. That war began in March 2003, and remains highly controversial.

“In retrospect, we made some mistakes,” Hastert said. “If you interview Dick Cheney, you’ll probably get a different response. But there were things we could have done differently.”

Hastert blamed the intelligence community for providing misinformation on the weapons of mass destruction that the administration said were in Iraq.

“I got the same CIA briefings that Bush and Cheney got. Our guys were saying what the Brits were saying, about the yellow powder for a nuclear bomb and the caches of [weapons of mass destruction]. And we knew Saddam had used WMD on his own people. It’s a hard thing, to put our young men and women in danger. But you have to make decisions with the information you have at the time.”

Hastert declined to level any criticism against the current Congress, which is mired in gridlock. He likened the Tea Party to the Perotists of the 1990s, noting both groups were “very upset with taxes, with government, with healthcare” and were “almost anti-government.”

“But being upset is not necessarily the best way to get things done,” he said. 

“To get things done in government you have to work at it, you have to keep trying, you have to engage people, give them opportunities to contribute. It’s hard, it’s hard work, but you have to do it. That’s what you are there to do.”