Weight of Speaker Post Off Hastert

Posted March 7, 2007 at 6:51pm

It’s easy to see how losing the Speakership has affected Rep. Dennis Hastert: In the four months since Election Day, the Illinois Republican has lost an impressive 50 pounds, and he is working to trim down even more.

“I’m finding these old suits in the back of my closet that are fitting again,” Hastert said in a Tuesday interview in his Capitol office, after a monthlong stint at home during February to recover from gall bladder surgery helped him work to get his health — and weight — back under control.

Diabetes, a poor diet and a grueling political schedule took a toll on Hastert’s health in his eight years as the longest-serving Republican Speaker; he calculates that he went to more than 2,000 political events and fundraisers.

He was hospitalized a handful of times to treat bouts of kidney stones, and once for a skin infection. Aides and colleagues privately voiced concerns that Hastert’s health was notably deteriorating leading up to the midterm elections, so much so that one former aide said the vast improvement in Hastert’s health is a “silver lining” in losing the majority.

The Speaker Emeritus

For the 65-year-old Hastert, there are many silver linings these days. As an act of goodwill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave him prized real estate on the first floor of the Capitol that boasts a reception area, a private kitchen and a spacious personal office with a commanding view of the National Mall.

He also is a first-time grandfather. In January, his son Ethan’s wife gave birth to a premature son, Jack, who weighed little more than 2 pounds at birth but is now doing fine, Hastert said.

And while betting odds continue to be stacked against Hastert sticking around the House much longer, he insists that he’s not ready to throw in the towel.

“First of all, I was elected by 700,000 people to represent them whether I was Speaker or not,” Hastert said. “So I felt that I had a responsibility to do the job I was elected to do. … I also felt I had something to contribute here.”

In recent times, Speakers haven’t stayed in the House when their time with the gavel was up. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) left the chamber when it become apparent he didn’t have the support for another term; Tom Foley (D-Wash.) lost his re-election bid; Jim Wright (D-Texas) resigned under an ethics cloud; and Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) retired at the end of his tenure.

A former history teacher, Hastert notes that in the more distant past it was not so unusual for Speakers to stick around. The last Speaker to remain in the House after losing the gavel was Rep. Joseph Martin (R-Mass.) in the 1950s, but he stayed in leadership to become Minority Leader.

Ironically, the last Speaker to vacate the office and rejoin the rank and file after winning re-election in 1914 was another Illinois Republican — Rep. Joe Cannon.

It might have been hard for a firebrand such as Gingrich to linger and take a back seat, but Hastert has no qualms with distancing himself from the current leadership team. “John’s running his shop and I’m trying to stay out of his way,” he said about Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “I don’t need to be looking over his shoulder and poking at him all the time. I think he just needs to go forward and do what he needs to do.”

Still, Hastert maintains a quiet influence. Republicans created a “Speaker Emeritus” slot on the Republican Steering Committee, and sources familiar with the group said Hastert played a deciding role this year in securing Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) the ranking membership on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee over rival Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.).

“He is an asset on that front,” said a GOP leadership aide. “There are few Members that know the Conference as well as he does.”

Earlier this year, Hastert also spoke up at the Conference to urge his colleagues to be an engaged minority. “I can’t restrain myself in Conference,” he said. “ I get up and say my piece like any backbencher.”

The Legacy

His colleagues widely agree Hastert will be remembered as a popular and well-liked Speaker, known for his “coach” persona and aversion to the limelight. When asked to reflect on what he is most proud of during his tenure, Hastert focuses less on what Republicans accomplished legislatively but rather how they got it done.

“We did a lot of things. I look back and it’s not just the policy issues but it’s how we weathered through certain times,” he said, observing that his tenure began under turbulent circumstances — a theme that would carry throughout his service. “It just seemed like it was one thing after another.”

He took over the job after presumed Speaker Robert Livingston (R-La.) resigned amid accusations of extramarital affairs as Congress was in the midst of the impeachment process against then-President Bill Clinton. Hastert said the Conference was falling apart at a time when Republicans had a razor-thin majority and Congress had very low approval ratings.

He weathered a war in Kosovo, the 2000 presidential election debacle that almost made him the interim president had not the Supreme Court made its decision in time, the Enron and corporate scandals, the bursting of the tech bubble that dragged down the economy, and most notably, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hastert bemoaned the partisanship that defined his years as Speaker, though much of that was due to the more hard-charging style of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). “We never got [Democrats’] votes. So we had to pull together and get our own votes,” he said. “It was all politics, all the time.”

While Hastert and DeLay forged a solid working relationship, there is little to suggest their ties go beyond Congress. Now that DeLay has left the House, Hastert said they communicate “not really on a regular basis, but I talk to him occasionally.” He has not visited DeLay’s Web site.

Whatever success he had, Hastert’s legacy will include the scandal caused by former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned from the House only weeks before the elections amid accusations that he sent sexually explicit messages to male teenagers in the House Page Program.

The uproar prompted a highly publicized ethics investigation that included Hastert and his senior aides. Initially his office went into bunker mode as they tried to get a grip on the situation. Fellow Republicans grumbled that the Hastert shop moved too slowly to publicly respond to the accusations and the Speaker became the target of an unprecedented level of criticism.

While Hastert’s senior aides had been aware of one set of innocuous e-mails Foley had sent to former pages, they furiously denied ever knowing of the more sexually charged communications. The ethics investigation ultimately backed up the claim, but concluded that Hastert’s staff could have done more to investigate the matter.

Hastert said he tried to do the right thing, and offered no apologies.

“I can’t worry about how history is going to teach it, or handle it. They are going to handle what they handle,” he said. “I went through the whole ethics issue and I was exonerated. The day that this thing hit we really didn’t know about Foley. Some of our staff knew about Foley, but they went through the process that they were supposed to go through.”

Hastert shrugs at suggestions that he could have done better to prevent, or manage, the controversy.

“I guess you can always say you would have done stuff differently. But we were just trying to get the facts because we really didn’t have the facts,” he said. “So, was it wrong? Was it right? We tried to get it right.”

Hastert’s former chief of staff and close friend Scott Palmer has since retired and left Washington, D.C. For now, his chief counsel, Ted Van Der Meid, has stayed on the House payroll to catalog Hastert’s papers that eventually will be sent to Illinois’ Wheaton College for their collection. Longtime aide Mike Stokke has stayed on as his chief of staff, but most of Hastert’s other former aides have filtered into other Capitol Hill posts.

The Future

In the immediate future, Hastert plans on attending the NCAA wrestling tournament next week, a tradition that he works to uphold despite more than 20 years in Washington.

He also plans to keep working for GOP presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom Hastert endorsed early on.

“I’m not a guy who always jumps out and endorses people, but I just thought that Romney could do the best job,” Hastert said. “He has a presence, he fills a room when he walks into it, and I think he would be a good presidential candidate.”

Only Hastert knows when he will retire, but he insists that despite speculation, he’s not ready yet. He is digging in at the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he is ranking member on the subcommittee on Energy and air quality.

“I haven’t made that decision yet, [I’ll stay] as long as I can make a contribution and be a positive force,” he said.

Hastert’s days now mostly are filled with committee hearings, a daily schedule that once was seven pages long has been whittled down to one or two, and what once was a multi-person entourage has gotten a lot smaller.

Hastert said his extended stay back home in Illinois when he was recovering from surgery did not spark any homesickness.

“It was pretty cold in Illinois,” he quipped. “First of all, my wife said if I was home all the time I would have to find something else to do.”

When Hastert does opt to leave, there will be no shortage of candidates to take his seat. State Rep. Tim Schmitz and state Sen. Chris Lauzen are potential GOP contenders, as are dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, state House Minority Leader Tom Cross, and Kane County Board Chairwoman Karen Steve-McConnaughay.

While Illinois political sources have said Hastert is seen as leaning toward Schmitz as his replacement, Hastert denied he has a favorite. “I haven’t made a preference at all. The electorate is going to make their own mind up,” he said. “I haven’t baptized anybody.”

Though long known for a personal interest in Japan, Hastert shot down suggestions that he could seek an ambassadorship.

“If everybody’s saying that I’m going to be ambassador to Japan it’s awful hard to be a Member of Congress because no one wants to contribute to your campaign or anything else because they don’t think you’re going to be around,” he said. “I’ve got a wife who really doesn’t want to go to Japan. She’s got a new grandson she doesn’t want to leave. She also told me she wouldn’t put our two dogs in a kennel. There’s priorities in families.”

He also said he is unlikely to join K Street. “I don’t see myself as a lobbyist. I can’t say I’m never going to be a lobbyist, but I don’t see that as something I’d be comfortable doing,” Hastert said, adding, “I’m interested in education, I think there’s some things that we could do — I’m interested in everything.”

Hastert said he just wants to help Republicans engage in the new minority. “I think you need to pick your fights, you lose your effectiveness if you’re out there with your dukes up all the time,” he said.

As one indication that he remains a welcome presence for Republicans, Members continue to seek him out on the House floor when he takes his seat, now in the back of the House chamber rather than the front.