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A post-impeachment speaker; Hastert: House leader needs to tame his GOP mentors, work with Democrats and impress the voters.


WITH THE Senate embarking upon an impeachment trial that lacks public support, it is refreshing to have a speaker of the House who appears to be what the people want: Someone who can work with others to get a job done.

J. Dennis Hastert, the low-key former teacher from small-town Illinois, shows none of the fire of his Republican predecessor, Newt Gingrich, or the naked ambition of the Democratic minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt. He has demonstrated none of the stature of such predecessors as Democrat Tip O'Neill or fellow Illinois Republican Robert H. Michel. That must be hoped for as he grows in the job.

Mr. Hastert became the choice to replace Mr. Gingrich, who took the fall for the Republican electoral disaster Nov. 3, after Louisiana Rep. Robert Livingston's candidacy fell victim to an old personal scandal.

Both were casualties of their own war to remove President Clinton from office. Mr. Hastert, a conservative Mr. Nice Guy, was nobody's first choice but his colleagues' fallback. In their view, he is what the times demand.

The new speaker confronted the low approval for his party, hanging on to a 10-seat majority in the House, by talking up bipartisanship. He will need it to get anything done to protect Social Security or to reduce taxes or to strengthen schools and national defense. Hastert, a former wrestling coach, often talks about letting others star.

The irony is that the confrontational leadership responsible for the chaos has otherwise changed so little: Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay remain as majority leader and party whip, respectively. No fools, they promoted Mr. DeLay's deputy, Mr. Hastert, over themselves.

To accomplish his party's or the nation's agenda, the new speaker must wriggle from the influence of his mentor, Mr. DeLay. Then, Mr. Hastert must work with the Democratic minority and, ultimately, the Democratic president.

Whether this proves to be the person Mr. Hastert is trying to remove from office, or Vice President Al Gore, who would be elevated in that event, there will be a strong, liberal-centrist president with whom Republican leaders in both houses must deal, during and after the impeachment trial.

The American people have consistently produced divided government, not trusting either party with all the levers of power.

To make such a setup work, the new speaker must be as good as his very accommodating words on the opening day of the 106th Congress.

Pub Date: 1/08/99

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