Denny the Dullard

Complete print edition now available in digital version on NewsStand.com


Speaker: Lessons From Forty Years in Coaching and Politics, by Denny Hastert, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 312 pages, $27.95

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, coach. And those who can't coach become speaker of the House of Representatives.

OK, that's a bit unfair to Dennis "Denny" Hastert. In Speaker: Lessons From Forty Years in Coaching and Politics, he tells us that in his 16 years coaching high school wrestling, he produced one state championship team and almost a dozen individual state champions and was once named state coach of the year in Illinois. That's not a bad record. Then again, Lou Albano managed 18 world tag team wrestling champions, two intercontinental champions, and one world wrestling champion in the WWWF (later WWF and WWE). And no one seems to be seeking his political leadership.

Still, Hastert says his experience in coaching taught him several lessons that have propelled him to political success, such as "Never underestimate your opponent" and "Never rely on your opponent to help you win." (Aren't those really the same thing?) The real lesson of this book, however, is that it's physically dangerous to stand between Denny Hastert and higher office. One of his longtime aides once summed up Hastert's rise to power as "illness, illness, scandal, and dumb luck." That's no joke. (No, really?XHastert's jokes aren't that funny.)

In 1980 Hastert lost the Republican nomination for an open seat in the Illinois legislature. Just a few weeks later, the other Republican who represented the three-seat district had a stroke and gave up his nomination for re-election. Party bosses picked Hastert, and he won.

Six years later, after U.S. Rep. John Grotberg (R-Ill.) was nominated for a second term, he was diagnosed with cancer and fell into a coma. The Illinois state Republican convention drafted Hastert, and the wrestling coach was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1998 House Republicans were growing tired of the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who had masterminded the GOP takeover of the House and his own rise to the speaker's chair four years earlier. "He would have good ideas; he was just amazing with good ideas," Hastert writes. "The problem was he would have three good ideas a day. He'd give me the job of following through on at least one of them. I'd still be working on this one idea that was, say, two weeks old when all of a sudden he'd change course."

Sensing that Republicans were once again ready for a leader with no good ideas, Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.) decided to challenge Gingrich. Three days after the November 1998 elections, in which House Republicans lost five seats, Gingrich announced he would not seek re-election as speaker. Days later, the Republican conference nominated Livingston to replace him. But in December, Livingston admitted to an extramarital affair and announced he would stand down.

Hastert says that even before Livingston finished his resignation speech he received a call from Gingrich telling him he was the only one who could pull the Republicans back together again. (Hastert doesn't mention that a year later, Gingrich would divorce his second wife amid rumors he was having an affair with an aide he later married.) Other Republican leaders in the House quickly joined Gingrich in urging Hastert to stand for speaker, and the Republican conference elected him to the post on December 19, 1998.

Hastert never says why Republicans thought he was the "only one" who could lead them. Presumably, we are supposed to believe it was because of his experience and skill. But at the same time the Republican conference was selecting a speaker, the House was voting on articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. For most of 1998, newspapers and television newscasts had been filled with politicians involved in sex scandals or alleged scandals; Clinton, Gingrich, and Livingston were just the most notable. Hastert admits that voters were growing weary of it all and that it hurt his party. He just doesn't seem to have considered the possibility that his peers elected him because they considered him the House Republican least likely to be having sex.

Hastert writes that one of his fellow coaches would tell players with injured fingers or feet to "spit on it and rub it." If Hastert had offered that same advice to some of his fellow congressmen, he might never have become speaker. (The future speaker showed he was a politician, not a lover, at heart with the way he asked his then-girlfriend to marry him: "Well, people think we ought to get married.")

Soon after being sworn in, Hastert says he and other House Republicans agreed on four things they needed to do to secure America's future. At the top of the list: Be fiscally responsible and balance the budget. That's one of the last times in the book we hear any talk of balanced budgets.

One can understand why Hastert doesn't want to admit that on his watch federal spending and deficits have skyrocketed. But why did the Republicans fail to achieve their top goal? Hastert offers no answers or even excuses. But a close reading of his autobiography gives us some clues.

From the time Hastert entered government, he has seen his job as cutting deals, passing bills, and getting re-elected. He really seems to come alive when detailing all the arm twisting and deal making behind various pieces of legislation. Thus, when he lists the accomplishments of Congress during his time as speaker, we get laundry lists of bills that have passed. "By substantial margins, we had approved the Do Not Call and Do Not Spam bills aimed at stopping consumers from being harassed through their phones or computer lines," he writes of the 108th Congress. "We passed the Amber alert bill to keep our kids safe from kidnappers, and we okayed spending to combat AIDS at the highest level yet."

When Hastert talks of congressional failures, it always has to do with legislation that didn't pass. "All that work on a bill of some twelve hundred pages had gone up in smoke," he writes of an energy bill passed by the House that didn't make it through the Senate. "Once a bill of that magnitude falls apart it is almost impossible to put it back together."

Hastert doesn't seem to question whether the laws he passes actually do what they're intended to do, much less whether they square with his professed goal of making the federal government smaller. But then Hastert?Xa slow reader who watches little television and few movies?Xdoesn't seem terribly introspective or aware of life beyond the halls of Congress.

By Hastert's account, most of his fellow lawmakers are cut from similar cloth. "Back in 1977, a House committee study found that members worked eleven-hour days and spent only thirty-three minutes 'at such contemplative tasks as reading, thinking or writing,'" he writes. "I haven't checked recently, but I'm sure the breakdown is even worse today." When Hastert describes the creation of the Department of Homeland Security as "the largest government reorganization since 1947," I suspect he isn't just trying to divert attention from the fact that ostensibly small-government Republicans had created yet another new federal bureaucracy. He really doesn't realize that's what happened.

Hastert also seems genuinely surprised that his son Josh is a lobbyist (or "government consultant," as they prefer to be called now). "I never dreamed that Josh would ever want to do something like that," he writes. "When he was growing up, he was sort of an anti-government guy."

House Republicans under Hastert's leadership have undergone a similar metamorphosis. They've grown comfortable with government power now that they wield it. They may mouth the occasional "small government" words, but they are far more interested in process than principles.

That must be what it means to become the governing party.?