The Steady-Handed Hastert
To many political observers, last week's drumbeat for Dennis Hastert's resignation as House speaker felt like 1998 all over again-the year that Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced out after the GOP was rocked by the loss of congressional seats in the midterm elections and sex scandals that came swift on its heels. From that chaos emerged Hastert: a farm kid and disheveled former wrestling coach from Illinois without a whiff of excitement to him.
In many ways, Hastert was the anti-Gingrich. He shied away from the spotlight, quieted the noise surrounding the contentious Contract With America, and pursued more personal, behind-the-scenes consensus building that allowed the rank-and-file to shine. "It's remarkable how he's been able to hold the [Republican] coalition together," says a former House aide. "Look at all the votes they won by one or two. That's a testament to his leadership." Critics have accused him of allowing former Rep. Tom DeLay to be his hatchet man while he made friends with a relatively hands-off approach. Whatever the case, the 64-year-old's quiet style has made Hastert the longest-serving Republican speaker.
Low key. But when the Mark Foley sex scandal exploded and put the speaker in the eye of the storm, some wondered whether the pragmatic, no-frills style that vaulted Hastert to power might ultimately prove to be his undoing. "One of the reasons he was elected was because you don't need to be a great communicator when your job is to run a train on time," says a former top GOP aide. "But when you get sucked into a whirlwind like this, a plodding approach is not the way to survive."
Indeed, it seemed as if Hastert had explaining to do. His version of when and what he knew about Foley's behavior seemed to contradict those of other Republicans touched by the scandal. Democrats, meanwhile, blasted House leaders for not sharing concerns about Foley with the Democrat on the House Page Board.
As the fallout from Foley spread, Hastert was slammed by conservatives like Paul Weyrich who called for his resignation. But by week's end, Hastert appeared to have won over some of the doubters. "Any Republican with half a brain realizes they cannot toss [Hastert] over," says a Senate Republican staffer. "They understand if we lose Hastert, that's a guaranteed way to lose the majority. He's remained speaker because he puts the good of the party ahead of himself." Hastert has insisted that he handled the case appropriately based on the information he had. And in private conversations with Republican leaders, he has said he would resign if he felt it would help the GOP. After speaking personally with Hastert, Weyrich recanted his criticism, saying Hastert convinced him that he's telling the truth. In a press conference back home in Batavia, Hastert made clear he had no intention of resigning. But he struck a contrite tone. "The bottom line is ... the buck stops here," he said. President Bush, who has asked the veteran congressman to hold his leadership post through 2008, called to offer his support. Hastert's slow-and-steady approach seemed to have worked again.
This story appears in the October 16, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.