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Hastert Moves Into History Books as House Speaker

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today marks a milestone for the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. As of today, Dennis Hastert has served longer than any Republican speaker in history. Still, many Americans aren't sure who he is. Hastert has long preferred to operate out of the public eye in Washington, leaving the headlines to others. But that may no longer be possible, given recent clashes with the White House, the coming departure of this longtime legislative partner, Tom DeLay, and a tough election coming in November.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Few politicians are proud to be described as anonymous, but go to Denny Hastert's official website, at the top right corner, it says, who is the speaker. Then it displays this quote from the Washington Post's David Broder - "The most powerful Republican outside the White House is also the most anonymous. Few seem to notice the existence, let alone the large and growing influence of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert."

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The best words that I've recently heard were these, Denny Hastert is running for office again.

GREENE: That was President Bush on a visit to Hastert's Illinois district last year. Hastert had decided with some nudging from the White House to run for an 11th term. The president in his first term welcomed Hastert's service as a loyal caretaker of the administration's agenda.

Time and time again he carried water for the White House with no sign of an agenda of his own. In November, he took to the floor in a late night debate and defended cuts to Medicaid and other popular domestic programs in the face of Democratic taunts.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): We could leave our children with a deficit, leave our children with a deficit, and you're right, you are right. Stand up and clap, because we will leave our children, can I have some order -

GREENE: Hastert was a high school wrestling coach and at 64 he still looks like he'd be happier wearing a sweatshirt and a whistle. Dick Cheney once joked that when he gets together with Hastert, it's hard to contain all that charisma.

The speakership was the first job Hastert was elected to in the House leadership. He got it almost accidentally back in 1998, after the fall of the fiery Newt Gingrich.

Representative NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia): To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident, or too pushy, I apologize. To whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize.

GREENE: With Gingrich gone, the leading Republican figure was Tom DeLay, the House Whip, also known for his hard charging ways. But DeLay stepped aside and promoted his deputy, Denny Hastert. The Republican Gingrich had been highly ambitious, challenging President Bill Clinton for preeminence in the Capitol.

Previous Democratic speakers, like Jim Wright and Tip O'Neill, also cast themselves as counterweights to the President. O'Neill became a kind of sparring partner for President Ronald Reagan and when O'Neill finally retired in 1986, he had this to say to Reagan on the phone -

Representative TIP O'NEILL (Democrat, Massachusetts): Mr. President, how are you? Well, I'll tell you, we drew down the curtain, I'm walking off the stage, and it's nice to go to the applause of some of your friends on both sides of the aisle and particularly I want to say thank you to you for helping making me a very important man in the eyes of the American people.

GREENE: Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institutio, said the most memorable speakers, like Democrat Sam Rayburn, the longest serving of all, have been champions for their branch of government.

Mr. THOMAS MANN (Brookings Institution): They asserted Congress's independence and they became somewhat larger than life. Hastert has - by assuming the role of President Bush's lieutenant - has abdicated that institutional position and as a consequence, I think the institution has been diminished and its leader has been diminished as well.

GREENE: Indeed, Hastert has mostly been a bystander as the Bush White House has stretched the power of the Executive Branch. That's why it took many by surprise last week when Hastert got furious over an FBI search of the office of a Democratic Congressman, William Jefferson. The speaker was even hotter after ABC News suggested he was himself under scrutiny. A suggestion he perceived as a warning shot from within the administration.

Representative HASTERT: You know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people and we're just not going to be intimidated.

GREENE: Hastert has also openly disagreed with the President on social security and immigration and criticized Mr. Bush's decision to replace CIA Director Porter Goss. But it took the FBI search and the rage of his rank and file over their prerogatives to push Hastert over the line and into a new visibility in national affairs, whether he likes it or not.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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