WASHINGTON -- When Dennis Hastert was elected president of his high school class in Oswego, Ill., it was someone else -- a dynamic student politician -- who ended up nicknamed "Senator." Now, even as the Illinois Republican prepares to become the next speaker of the House, he still does not seem the sort of politician who ends up with a flashy title.
"The 'Senator' was the idea guy -- but Dennis was the hard worker," said Tom Jarman, a longtime friend who went to high school with Hastert. "He always took the jobs that required organization and discipline -- the jobs where what he had to do was get things done."
This workmanlike approach is exactly what Hastert's colleagues hope will follow him into his role as speaker of the House, a post to which he was formally nominated yesterday and will be elected today. To them, Hastert is a man almost defiantly plain in an era of flamboyant politics -- a salve to a House where dueling personalities and high-publicity scandals led to the resignations of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his anointed successor, Robert L. Livingston.
"This is a big job," Hastert said yesterday, flanked by Republicans at a news conference. Referring to the difficult task of mending the rifts created in the last Congress, he added: "I'm not coming into this deluded about what has to be done and what we need to do."
On Capitol Hill, Hastert is known for all the things Gingrich wasn't -- rather than mapping out sweeping campaigns for the conservative soul of the Republican Party, he prefers back-room negotiations and the quiet task of counting votes and aligning House members for GOP causes. Every bit as conservative as the fiery right-wing Republicans who expound on national issues, the slightly rumpled Hastert is not likely to be found on center stage with them.
In a House with the narrowest majority of any party since 1931, Hastert will have to broker compromise to see Republican initiatives survive. A protege of Illinois' Robert H. Michel, the courtly GOP leader who could corral votes from both sides of the aisle, the 57-year-old Hastert is said to be similarly focused on solid work without political pyrotechnics.
"He's always tried to get the job done rather than pose himself as some national politician," said Mark Irion, a Democratic lobbyist who has sought compromises from Hastert on health care and telecommunications issues. "He reads and he listens, and I think that he starts with an open mind because Denny's not locked in ideologically."
Others wonder if the wounds of the last Congress -- and the objections by Democrats over the way the impeachment vote was handled by Republicans -- are too deep for Hastert to heal.
"You have a poisoned situation," said Wisconsin Rep. Thomas M. Barrett, a moderate Democrat who worked with Hastert on a Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee. "First, he faces a divided caucus himself, where the far right has shown little, if any, willingness to compromise, and then you have a situation with the Democrats where you can't expect huge amounts of cooperation."
Hastert is more optimistic: "There is a common ground. There's common-sense things that we can deal with across the aisle in this Congress. We need to open those discussions."
The Illinois native is every inch the conservative, hailing from one of the country's most solidly Republican areas in the "Collar Counties" outside Chicago.
A solid voter against taxes and government regulation, Hastert voted to the right of Gingrich on several economic matters and opposed campaign finance reform. An evangelical Christian, he opposed abortion, affirmative action and health benefits for domestic partners but supported prayer in schools and some federal funding for private-school scholarships.
On Capitol Hill, he is known as the softer half of the vote-counting machine led by aggressive Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose offices and staff Hastert has shared as the chief deputy in the whip operation. Critics charge that Hastert, once a Boy Scout, could become a mouthpiece for DeLay and the right wing. Hastert's defenders disagree: "He doesn't talk much, but when he does, people listen," said former GOP leadership aide Ed Gillespie.
From the start, Hastert was the first choice to replace Livingston. Republicans were murmuring about him even as Livingston was finishing his resignation speech.
"There was a real coalescing around Denny," said outgoing Rep. Bill Paxon, one of Hastert's closest friends, who helped organize the drive to make him speaker. "The House was voting on impeachment, Livingston was making this speech, and at that moment of complete turbulence you had everybody saying, 'The next speaker's got to be Dennis Hastert.' "
In politics, Hastert cuts a nonthreatening figure. The burly congressman travels in his district with his dogs in the passenger seat of his pickup and does his grocery shopping with his shirt untucked. He grew up hauling Purina cattle and sheep feed for his father's business, and in his lumbering ways on Capitol Hill has the same look of a man doing chores.
"He's a hard man not to like," said fellow Illinois Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde.
If his down-home qualities lack charisma, his supporters are not worried. "I don't know that it's absolutely essential that the speaker be gifted with superb eloquence to sway a vote," said Michel, who helped assign Hastert to key panels overseeing health care and telecommunications. "Some will say, 'Oh, he isn't a flamboyant speaker,' but you get to know him through his deeds rather than his big public pronouncements."
The new national stature doesn't quite fit with Hastert's life. At his weekly coffee and doughnuts with two pals in a Bristol, Ill., garage, two Secret Service agents were suddenly tagging along with the father of two. More recently his wife, Jean, made sure that their home phone number was finally unlisted to avoid calls from strangers. Hastert, known for reading his speeches word for word, suddenly will be called on for a touch of show biz.
Hastert hails from a cluster of conservative towns where he and many of his old high school wrestling teammates still live. After graduating from Wheaton College in northern Illinois, Hastert worked as a teacher and wrestling coach for 16 years at Yorkville High School. While other coaches screamed at their players during the matches, Hastert was known as the stone-faced observer who would watch quietly when his wrestlers were outmatched.
That same style followed Hastert into politics. When he plotted his bid for Congress in 1986, he called Rich Galen, a Republican consultant, to his dining-room table and asked for debate training, all the while talking about the run as though it were a long wrestling match.
"That's how he sees the world: You win some matches, you lose some," Galen said.
Hastert left coaching and seized his moment in 1980, serving six years in the Illinois Assembly. After winning his House seat in 1986 -- taking the place of the Republican incumbent fatally stricken with cancer -- Hastert had emerged as a leader among House Republicans by 1990, taking an active role in health care and anti-drug legislation.
But he has often seemed just as happy to be in the background. Just after the midterm elections, Hastert learned he had enough votes to oust Majority Leader Dick Armey. Hastert refused to cross Armey, for whom he had already announced his support.
So he has remained, in Washington circles at least, the sort of politician who stays unrecognized. To some, this is his greatest strength.
"He's not a lightning rod -- not a guy that creates attention," said Tom Cross, whom Hastert coached in wrestling and who now holds Hastert's former seat in the state legislature. "Everybody feels they need to re-establish faith in the government -- he's the one to do it."
Pub Date: 1/06/99