Rep. Dennis Hastert to Bow Out

For eight years, Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House — the longest-serving Republican ever in that post. He lost the position this past January, when Democrats took control of Congress. Hastert plans to announce he will not run for re-election next year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

For eight years, Dennis Hastert was speaker of the House, the longest serving Republican ever in that post. He lost the position last January as Democrats took control of Congress. Today, Hastert plans to announce he will not run for re-election next year.

And NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor takes a look back at his tenure.

BRIAN NAYLOR: He's been known as the coach and the accidental speaker. He became speaker on the heels of a sex scandal and lost the post in part because of one. Dennis Hastert was not comfortable as the public face of congressional Republicans. He was more of an inside player, respected and admired by colleagues such as Missouri Republican Roy Blunt.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): I think the overwhelming evaluation of Denny Hastert's speakership has to be one of patience, and leadership, and accomplishment of decency and compassion. And I'm proud to have him as a friend of mine.

NAYLOR: But Hastert's accomplishments are harder to define. Political science Professor Ross Baker of Rutgers University says he was overshadowed in the post by the man who helped put him there.

Dr. ROSS BAKER (Rutgers University): He will go down in history as being Tom DeLay's front man.

NAYLOR: Hastert became the speaker following the 1998 election when congressional Republicans lost seats in the midst of the impeachment of President Clinton. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich decided to step aside and heir-apparent Bob Livingston of Louisiana bowed out after revealing he had had an extramarital affair. Into the void stepped Texas Congressman Tom DeLay, the minority whip, who realizing he was too much of a lightning rod for the post, arranged for his deputy, Hastert, to take it. Baker says Hastert was never able to escape the impression left by that bit of backroom dealing.

Dr. BAKER: It is clear that throughout the period of his speakership, until DeLay was forced to step down, that Tom DeLay was really calling the plays and I think everybody knew it.

NAYLOR: Hastert's defenders say the speaker was, in fact, calling the shots, but his style was far different from the mercurial Gingrich's.

Fellow Illinois Republican Ray LaHood says Hastert decentralized power.

Representative RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): He did not try and micromanage the House. From time to time, he would have to pull people in and say this is the way it has to be. But for the most part I think members felt that they had a lot of leeway to craft legislation in a way that reflected their own views and gave them a lot of responsibility.

NAYLOR: Hastert operated under the principle that unless a bill had the support of most GOP House members - a majority of the majority - it would not be considered, which marginalized the role of Democrats. At times, their frustrations with Hastert boiled over - as in this debate some two years ago over proposed spending cuts.

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

NAYLOR: Democrats got their revenge last November. Their victory was due to a number of factors - among them corruption scandals involving House Republicans. Hastert was criticized for not acting sooner when he found out that former GOP Congressman Mark Foley had sent salacious e-mails to congressional pages.

Rep. HASTERT: I'm sorry. You know, when you talk about the page issue and what's happened in the Congress, I am deeply sorry that this has happened.

NAYLOR: But the apology wasn't enough. Hastert's lack of action, says political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, was symptomatic. Pitney says Hastert excelled at the inside game but not the outside one.

Professor JACK PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): Hastert's instinct was to deal with that quietly, internally. And from the standpoint of his experience and background, that may have made sense. But politically it was a terrible blunder that helped cause Republican's control of the chamber.

NAYLOR: Now at age 65, Dennis Hastert has decided he has had enough of life as a rank and file member of Congress. He'll be vacating a seat that Republicans believe they can hang on to, but one that Democrats too feel they have a shot at in the next election.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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