Hastert Steps Up His Role With ‘Speaker’

Posted August 6, 2004 at 3:48pm

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is perhaps best known for his low-key, behind-the-scenes mien. But in his autobiography, “Speaker: Lessons From Forty Years in Coaching and Politics,” which hit bookstore shelves last week, Hastert doesn’t shy away from asserting himself.

He blasts some Democrats, such as the party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), for being more interested in “political criticism rather than what is best for our country”; declares it is he, not Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), who “move[s] the agenda”; and advocates the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service.

Hastert’s book, which mixes memoir with politics and policy, traces his trajectory from his small-town childhood in the Land of Lincoln to his days as a wrestling coach and social studies teacher to his unlikely rise to the highest echelons of government.

Along the way, Hastert presents himself as a reluctant player in the Congressional power game.

For instance, moments after then-Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) abruptly announced in December 1998 that due to past marital infidelities he would not stand for the post, Hastert writes that Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who had earlier announced his own decision to resign, told him “you’re the only guy who can pull this conference back together again.”

“Why, Me, Lord?” Hastert recalls thinking in the book. Ironically, Hastert, disillusioned with the changes underfoot, reveals that he had flirted with the idea of retiring from Congress just days before, and had even gone so far as to set up an appointment with a head hunter to discuss a job as president of a financial services group.

Those searching for their names in the book’s index need not worry, Hastert writes, because the book is “not … a tell all” and he has “no scores to settle.”

Still, Hastert manages to get a few digs in.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is described as “a talker” who “wouldn’t listen to what you had to say.” Then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton “felt people are inherently greedy and can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves.” And then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) implied politicization of the House Chaplain selection process in the 106th Congress taught Hastert never to expect “much from him.”

But it is Gingrich, Hastert’s self-proclaimed mentor, who comes in for the most extensive criticism in the book.

The “impulsive” Gingrich had “good ideas” but “no consistency,” and would pull the rug out from under his troops at a moment’s notice, Hastert writes.

During a brief interview last week after a speech at the National Press Club, Hastert, who has said he chose to pen the book now because he wanted to get his memories down on paper while they are still fresh, asserted that any criticism he leveled was “pretty well-tempered” and that he had yet to receive any feedback from his targets.

Hastert also indicated that he hoped to move forward on the book’s proposal to overhaul the U.S. tax system as early as next year.

“If we are going to get it done, next session is the session we are going to have to do it,” Hastert said of his call to change the way taxes are levied. “The consequences of going to a value-added tax or a national sales tax or an ad valorem tax or a consumption tax would be the elimination of the IRS.

“If you do that, you save Americans about $250 billion a year trying to comply with IRS standards,” he added.

Among his other policy pronouncements in the book, Hastert derides the McCain-Feingold bill as “the worst piece of legislation to become law while Republicans controlled Congress during my time in Washington” and defends President Bush’s decision to launch a pre-emptive war in Iraq.

And the 62-year-old Hastert, who is running for re-election to a 10th term this year, makes it clear he has no immediate plans to step down, writing, “I’d like to continue serving as Speaker as long as I am doing some good.”

Beginning today, Hastert will kick off the first part of a 20-state tour promoting GOP Congressional candidates, but he has not scheduled a formal book tour, said his spokesman John Feehery. However, Feehery added that the Speaker would stop at bookstores during the campaign swing to sign copies of the tome.