Hastert in 2007Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, once a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School, is an Illinoisan through and through—born in Aurora, reared in Oswego, lived and worked in Plano and Yorkville. His wife, Jean, a retired teacher, remains in Plano, and “The Speaker,” as his staff calls him, spends most weeks in Washington, where he is a lobbyist for the law firm Dickstein Shapiro and lives in a luxury hotel. (He won’t say which.)
Hastert returns to Plano for long weekends, usually on Thursday night. I had hoped to meet him in his office in Yorkville (a tax-payer-funded perk for former speakers), but he was about to leave for Asia on business. Hastert, who is not a lawyer, had followed the congressional herd through the revolving door to big bucks. His title is “senior adviser, government and law strategy group,” and he claims that lobbyist is not his primary role; he gives “strategic advice” to the firm as well. He adds that he spends a lot of time working on issues related to energy.
Hastert, 68, told me that when he retired in 2007 after 20 years in the House—eight as speaker and five as chief deputy majority whip—he decided he would “work as hard as I can for the first five years and see how I do. I don’t ever see myself as somebody sitting in a rocking chair.”
Sandwiched in the speaker’s job between lightning rods Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, Hastert—the longest-serving Republican ever to hold the nation’s third most powerful post—was studiously low-profile and, by comparison to Gingrich and Pelosi, a model of bipartisanship. Here, the highlights of our telephone conversation:
CF: The Democrats won control of the House in 2006, which meant that you were no longer going to be speaker. Is that why you resigned before your term was up?
DH: I was not planning to run in 2006 and the Vice President [Cheney] asked me to stay. When we came back and we didn’t have the majority, I was a back bencher—I thought I can do more on the outside than I can on the inside.”
CF: You mentioned that you met with Mayor Daley in Chicago a week before he announced his retirement, and that you saw him again in Shanghai two weeks after the announcement, when you were both in China and participated in a business roundtable.
DH: I was really surprised when he decided not to [run for re-election]. I’ve had a pretty good relationship with Mayor Daley. [When] I saw him the week before he made that decision, we talked about politics, but he certainly didn’t let on whether he was going to stay or not stay. [In Shanghai] he was very noncommittal about who he thought had the leg up on winning. He said, “You have a whole bunch of City Council people that want to run, but when they really see what’s in this job, I’m not sure they’ll run.” He said there were people involved in city politics now that had an outside shot, but he basically said that he thought that [the next mayor] would come from the outside. He didn’t mention Rahm’s name, but I think that was what the intent was.
CF: What do you think of Rahm’s chances?
DH: Rahm will certainly be able to raise the money. I think there is a question about whether he is actually a resident of Chicago or not, but rules never bothered Rahm before.
CF: In the special election to fill your [14th District] seat, Democrat Bill Foster won. He’s in a battle next Tuesday to keep his seat against Randy Hultgren. Will Foster hold on?
DH: I really think Hultgren [who beat Hastert’s son in the February 2010 primary] ought to win that race. The numbers are there for him, especially in a good Republican year. The only problem that he may have is that he has not done a very good job campaigning.
CF: You started your political career in the Illinois House [from 1980 to 1986, for three years of which Michael Madigan was Speaker]. Will Madigan lose his speakership on Tuesday?
DH: The fellow who is Minority Leader, Tom Cross, was a student of mine in high school. He looks like he may have an opportunity to win that.
CF: When you were Speaker of the House, why were you so much less a target than Nancy Pelosi is today?
DH: I always had a kind of old coaching philosophy. If a coach is in the headlines every week, the team’s in trouble. If the team’s in the headlines every week, we’re doing pretty well. Nothing against Newt [Gingrich], but Newt was always in the headlines. I think ultimately that was his undoing. I think the same may be true of Nancy.
CF: If the Republicans take the House on Tuesday, will [Minority Leader] John Boehner become Speaker—and does he have what it takes?
DH: I served with John Boehner for a long time. He’s the old kind of Washington power. I think John has the ability to run the House. If you’re looking beyond John Boehner, I think Eric Cantor would be great. He has the ability to get things done—he’s very smart and he’s willing to work.
CF: How will history judge George W. Bush?
DH: I knew the president pretty well. I met with him sometimes three to four times a week, and he took a hit for not being an intellectual. He was a pretty smart guy. He was up at 4:30 or 5 every morning. We came in for meetings with the president—by 7 a.m., he had already talked to three or four world leaders.
CF: Where were you when the planes hit on 9/11?
DH: I was in my office. The first plane hit, and somebody knocked on my door and told me. They thought it was a helicopter or small plane. I turned the TV on just in time to see the second plane hit, and I knew that this was a terrorist attack. We had John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, here to speak to a joint session of Congress. We had 5,000 people at work in the Capitol—whole Congress is in one room. I was trying to get on the line with the Vice President because he was in the Situation Room, and I’m looking out my window down the Mall and I see this black smoke—a third plane hit the Pentagon. Then I knew we had to get people out of there. Minutes before I was trying to decide whether we were going to close down or not, that plane went down in Pennsylvania. We know today it was headed for the Capitol. I had two security guards with me, whisking me out the door. I said, “What’s going on?” and they said there’s a fourth plane in the air. We didn’t know then that it was a CIA plane, but everybody panicked, got me out of the building to Andrews Air Force base, and then I was taken to an undisclosed location for the day.
CF: Did Cheney really run things and bark orders at President Bush?
DH: I think those two men really worked together as a team. More than probably any other President and Vice President. Gore played second fiddle to Clinton just because of the power of Clinton. In a meeting, Cheney never talked—he just listened and never pushed his ideas. Afterward he was always ready to advise the President when he needed to be advised or was asked to advise.
CF: So Cheney’s the polar opposite of Joe Biden?
DH: Yeah, I would say so.
CF: I saw you on TV recently and you looked so thin. Did you start going to the gym?
DH: I had gallbladder problems while I was Speaker, but I didn’t do anything about it. I just put it off and put it off. And finally when I left the Speakership I had surgery and was very sick for about three months. I lost about 20-25 pounds just because I ate about a third of what I’d normally eat. I just kept that up.
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Hastert which modern-day Speakers he most admires. He named two Democrats, Tip O’Neill and Sam Rayburn. It’s probably a good thing Hastert retired; he wouldn’t do well in a House that is hyper-partisan and may become even more so, if the Republicans take over on Tuesday.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune