‘Nice guy’ Hastert finishes first on Capitol Hill

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In 1960, Oswego High School’s seniors staged a play called “Terror in the Suburbs.” Alumni don’t remember much about it: “I played a naive young girl,” Nann Armstrong recalls, “and there was something about bodies in the window seat.”

J. Dennis Hastert played the villain. None of the local papers ever reviewed it, but you wouldn’t blame anyone if they guessed that Hastert bombed.

That’s no swipe at Hastert ‘s stage acumen it’s just that Hastert as the heavy requires a colossal suspension of disbelief.

When the stout, avuncular 57-year-old son of a feed supplier hurtled from national obscurity to become the nation’s 59th speaker of the House, “nice guy” became the pat reply from Washington pols asked by reporters to describe their colleague, almost as if the words were a suffix to the Yorkville Republican’s name.

In a town such as Washington, where egos and soft money and Smithsonian-size ambition define the way the game is played, “nice guys” usually find themselves forever swimming upstream.

But last year, Republicans saw their control over Congress shaved paper-thin, an indefatigable Washington powerhouse named Newt quit, a president was impeached for only the second time in U.S. history, and disclosures of Capitol Hill “indiscretions” youthful or otherwise piled up like trash at the height of a garbage strike.

Congress needed a nice guy.

What they got was a man known on the Hill as “the Coach,” a straight-shooting, let’s-talk-this-out Washington insider with a much-valued knack for forging bipartisan compromise in the back rooms of Congress.

He’s not the type to flit from show to show on the television talk show circuit, nor is he likely to use the job as a vehicle to become the party’s top leader, as did his predecessor, Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich.

Hastert is more concerned with keeping the government “up and running,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview. “That’s my No. 1 job, and I think that’s what people elected me to do. They really didn’t elect me to go out and be on the talk show circuit.”

STATE_OF_UNION_236450.jpg

President Clinton, shown in this image from video, shakes hands with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., as Vice President Al Gores watches during the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, Jan. 19, 1999, in Washington. | AP file

Some Democrats have wondered whether Hastert ‘s politics are too conservative for him to play bridge-builder. Others have questioned the degree of his independence from House Majority Whip Thomas DeLay, the Texas Republican under whom Hastert served as deputy majority whip.

But the best indication of Hastert ‘s potential as healer is his crossover appeal to Democrats, some of whom sound almost as effusive as their GOP counterparts when they speak of him.

Rep. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) joined Hastert on a 1997 drug interdiction inspection trip to South America and has liked him ever since. He said he found it hard to vote along party lines and against his fellow Illinoisan when Republicans elevated Hastert to speaker Jan. 6.

“I think he’s a man who’s stepping into his moment at the right time,” Blagojevich said. “I think Americans are sick of the confrontation and the bickering they’ve seen from Congress over the last four years. . . . ( Hastert ) has his own conservative beliefs, but he’s about governing and getting things done.”

Yorkville, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago and just beyond the fringe of the region’s sprawl, is the kind of place where Main Street still exists and people walking it still wave quick “hellos” to each other.

Hastert is Yorkville personified. Everyone in town knows the bearish round face, broad smile and thick glasses, the flannel shirts and khakis, the image of him in his red pickup, with his black Labrador, Max, at his side in the front seat.

Hastert often turns a 20-minute trip to the grocery store into a two-hour affair as he patiently chats with every constituent who wants to bend his ear. A collector of old cars, he meticulously maintains a 1953 firetruck and drives it in local parades.

Without fail, he flies home to his wife every weekend, passing the time by carving duck decoys and dutifully heeding Jean’s directions for tending the backyard garden of their cedar-sided home in the woods overlooking the Fox River, just outside Yorkville.

A diabetic, Hastert doesn’t smoke and has only an occasional beer. He is described by colleagues as deeply, but not outspokenly, religious. He puts his net worth at about $500,000, and along with the Kendall County home, he owns a town house in Washington he shares with two aides and co-owns the Plainfield building that once housed his father’s restaurant. With his wife, he owns a 270-acre farm in Macoupin County that belonged to her family.

“He’s never changed a whit since he was first elected to office,” says Dallas Ingemunson, longtime Kendall County pol and the man who paved the path for Hastert ‘s career in politics. “His humility is one of his real strong suits. He doesn’t exude a personality that reflects a person of his stature. He exudes the persona of Denny Hastert , a good person and good friend.”

The Hasterts have two grown sons: Ethan studies business at the University of Illinois-Champaign, and Joshua owns a music store called Seven Dead Arsonists in DeKalb. “His music is pop and heavy metal,” Hastert says. “I don’t understand it. I’m a Johnny Cash fan.”

Hastert is humbled by his rise to power, but he isn’t intimidated. During an interview at his new office, he sounded resolved and eager and, above all, realistic about his new assignment.

“I’ve always known what my strong points were and my weak points were,” Hastert said. “I was never a Newt Gingrich. I wasn’t very articulate and philosophical and a visionary that certainly Gingrich was. . . . My strong point is I can really identify problems and work through the process to solve the problems.”

On a recent Saturday morning, Hastert ‘s younger brother, David, stood outside his home on Gastville Road in a cold rain and gazed at the front rank of subdivisions advancing slowly from the east.

Back in the 1950s, when a teenage Denny Hastert would stand on the same spot, he’d see corn and soybeans stretching to the horizon. Milk was delivered, not picked up on the way home from work. The workweek began under the dim, soft cast of pre-dawn light.

Gastville Road is where Jack and Naomi Hastert raised their three sons, John Dennis , David and Chris, on a farm they bought in 1940. Jack penned a few pigs at the back of the lot, but the primary family business was a feed supply company that served surrounding farmers.

Born into a family of railroad workers, Jack Hastert had taken a different path, working as an embalmer during the Depression before opening the feed supply business. By the time Dennis was a teenager, Jack had thrown himself into the restaurant business, running eateries in Naperville and Aurora and the Clock Tower Restaurant in Plainfield.

But the feed supply venture still was going strong, so Jack enlisted Dennis to help deliver feed to local farms. It was backbreaking work. Slinging 100-pound bags of feed over his shoulder, he’d slowly haul them up to the top of a two-story silo.

“That’s where he got his football shoulders,” David Hastert said.

The wrestling team picture in Oswego High School’s 1960 yearbook includes a broad-chested, sinewy Denny Hastert . He wrestled, but he also played football, joined the track team, performed in the senior play and sang in the operetta chorus. He entered sheep in the county fair as a member of Future Farmers of America, worked on the yearbook staff, joined the science club and prom committee, and belonged to the National Honor Society.

“He exhibited natural leadership,” says classmate Bruce Woolley. In class, Hastert “knew the stuff when he was asked but wasn’t a person who sought to be in the spotlight, a know-it-all or anything like that,” Nann Armstrong said.

After graduating in 1960, Hastert enrolled in North Central College in Naperville, then transferred to Wheaton College. As a summer job, he’d get up at 3 a.m. to deliver milk. A shoulder injury kept him from Vietnam; his roommate and close friend, Jim Parnalee, did serve and was killed in 1965. Hastert has since visited Parnalee’s family in Michigan a couple of times.

Though Hastert attended college during the ’60s at the peak of psychedelia he says he never dabbled in drugs. Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school, “was pretty strict. I was in that age that we were kind of pure, I guess,” Hastert said.

“Denny was a very responsible young man,” said Chris Hastert , Denny’s younger brother by 12 years. “He was a tough act to follow.”

Hastert ‘s first full-time work out of college was a job teaching history at Yorkville High School. He helped coach football there and coached his wrestling team to a state championship in 1976.

He rented out a farmhouse with three fellow bachelor teachers. Rent was dirt cheap $120 a month split four ways. Surrounded by corn and blue sky, the bachelors livened up their summers with pig roasts.

“We usually had 50 to 100 people there,” said Bob Evans, one of Hastert ‘s roommates and a longtime friend. “We drank a lot of beer and had a good time. . . . But Denny was always the one under control. He’d sit back and watch things happen.”

Hastert ‘s reputation as a wrestling coach quickly grew. His teams won consistently, largely because of the amount of time Hastert devoted to them. It wasn’t uncommon for him to pack his team into his white Dodge van, which lacked air-conditioning, and trek them to wrestling camps in other states. Once he piled them into the van and drove to a Virginia camp to learn a single wrestling maneuver he had heard about, a move called the Gramby Roll in which a wrestler rollshisopponentover and locks up his arm and leg.

“He’d do research and put in the time,” Evans said. “He established high standards for those kids, and they respected him for that.”

During those years, Hastert ‘s altruistic nature took him to Japan, Colombia, Venezuela, Europe and the Soviet Union, usually to teach as part of a program for the YMCA or other social service agencies.

“Almost every summer before I got married, I was in Japan or Europe or South America,” Hastert said. “I’d take slides and bring that experience back to the classroom.”

Hastert married Jean Kahl, a physical education teacher at Yorkville High School, in the spring of 1973. The ceremony was held in southern Illinois, where Jean grew up. Pat Coleman, Jean’s roommate while the couple were dating, remembers what impressed Jean about Hastert .

“It was his character, his honesty. He was so unpretentious,” Coleman said. “I think a lot of his values came from (Yorkville). We’re still a very rural area and have some grass-roots values, and I think that’s reflected in him.”

In 1978, Hastert vacationed in Washington. He already had steeped himself in “the politics of coaching,” as he puts it, serving as president of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches Association and a member of the U.S. Wrestling Foundation. But the thought of government never had occurred to him.

The Washington trip changed that. He “got bit by the bug,” he says. It wasn’t that he walked away awestruck by politics and the players government intrigued him because it didn’t seem as complicated and awe-inspiring up close. “These guys are like anybody else,” Hastert recalls thinking after the trip. “They don’t have an aura around their heads or anything.”

Two years later, Hastert was working as an aide for then-state Sen. John Grotberg when he decided to run for the Illinois House. Coleman agreed to be his campaign manager. For a campaign office, Hastert used the basement of the Yorkville office building that Coleman’s uncle owned. The high school’s arts club made their signs. Hastert recruited ex-wrestlers and their parents to knock on doors.

“He didn’t try to be high-falutin’,” Coleman said. “You’d just look at him and say, `You’re really there, aren’t you?’ ”

Hastert lost to the incumbent, Allan Schoberlein, and Suzanne Deuchler in the primary. But that summer, doctors told Schoberlein he was dying, and he quit, leaving GOP officials to settle on a replacement. They picked Hastert , who took Schoberlein’s place on the November ballot and won.

“I knew he had great people skills working with young people in the wrestling program,” said Dallas Ingemunson, who was, and still is, Kendall County GOP chairman and pushed for Hastert ‘s appointment. When Hastert took the job, Ingemunson offered some words of advice: “Sit next to Ewing; he’ll show you the ropes.”

That’s exactly what Hastert did, says Tom Ewing, now a congressman and once Hastert ‘s close colleague in the Illinois House.

“As a freshman legislator, Denny was wise to listen,” Ewing said. “He’d sit back and take advice.”

Then GOP leaders began throwing big jobs at Hastert , and Hastert produced. He took on complicated legislative tangles, such as public utilities reauthorization, and became a specialist in state budget matters.

“A lot of the same talents and traits that have brought him to the top, he had in Springfield,” Ewing said.

The 14th Congressional District is devoutly Republican, but its uniformity stops there.

Rolled into the 14th are the westward marching subdivisions of the Fox River Valley, the tired Rust Belt downtowns of Elgin and Aurora, 22,500 students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and, just about everywhere else, vast seas of corn and soybeans.

Hastert ‘s old boss, Grotberg, had served one term in Congress before his decadelong fight with cancer forced him to step down in 1986. Again, Ingemunson was instrumental in the GOP’s decision to replace Grotberg on the general election ballot with Hastert , who went on to defeat Democrat Mary Lou Kearns by about 7,000 votes.

Working under the tutelage of House Minority Leader Robert Michel, Hastert became known as a tireless, reliable lawmaker conservative in his votes, fair and effective in negotiations and shy about the spotlight.

He has had his controversies.

Hastert was one of 325 House members caught up in the swirl of the 1992 House Bank scandal, acknowledging he bounced 17 checks ranging in value from $100 to $3,500. He wasn’t among the worst offenders. Rep. Charles Hatcher, a Democrat from Georgia, admitted overdrawing his account as many as 780 times over a 39-month period.

Hastert has been criticized for trips he has made as a lawmaker, especially a 1997 trip to Burma. The mission was billed as an inspection of drug interdiction efforts there, but questions arose over whether it amounted to a lobbying junket indirectly sponsored by Unocal, a U.S. oil company involved in the construction of a $1.2 billion natural gas pipeline in the southeast Asian country. At the time, Burma was facing possible U.S. sanctions because of humanrightsviolations,whichjeopardized the project’s future.

Hastert said he is considering future drug interdiction inspection trips to South America and Haiti: “The money we put in place for those countries to fight drugs, you need to make sure it is in place (that) things are working.”

The rare controversies haven’t slowed Hastert during his six terms. “The Coach” has moved steadily up the ranks of GOP leadership. He became deputy chief majority whip, a key post that entails not only helping chief majority whip DeLay amass votes, but hunting down the recalcitrants and cajoling them to switch.

His loyalty was tested when, after the GOP’s dismal showing in the November elections, a movement surfaced to tab Hastert as House majority leader. Hastert already had pledged his support to Texan Dick Armey but was being given the chance to become the second-most powerful lawmaker in the House.

“Denny told people, `Quite frankly, I’m not pursuing it. My vote is still promised to Dick Armey,’ ” said Doug Booth, a former aide for Hastert who now is pastor of Sharon United Methodist Church in Plainfield. “Despite all the turmoil at the time, he stuck by his word. It sounds hokey, but in dealing with other members of Congress, your honor is your word.”

When the U.S. House of Representatives convened Dec. 19, Speaker-designate Bob Livingston was supposed to take the podium to tack one more exclamation mark on a script everyone knew would, in a couple of hours, end with the president’s impeachment. Instead, the Louisiana Republican, who just days earlier preempted a Hustler magazine expose about marital infidelity by admitting it, stunned the chamber and the nation.

“I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker, and I believe I had it in me to do a fine job. But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances,” Livingston said.

Within moments, dumbstruck Republicans began huddling. Hastert stood in a cloakroom, talking to Gingrich by phone.

Hastert recalls Gingrich telling him: “You are the only one in this conference who could pull this body together. You are going to have to be the next speaker of the House.”

Moments later, Ewing found Hastert .

“I said, `Denny, this is a chance. You’re the man to do this. I believe you have the talent that we need badly.’ ”

Hastert called his wife. He was about to make a decision that would change their lives, he told her, and he wanted her thoughts.

“She said, `Well, I’ve always supported you, everything you’ve done. If you are doing the right thing, then go ahead and do it.’ I know inside she is saying, `No, no, no, no!’ ”

Later, Ewing found Hastert in DeLay’s office with DeLay and Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). After the four of them discussed whether the votes were there for Hastert , DeLay and Paxon left the room. Then Hastert and Ewing had “a very private conversation between two people who know each other very well.”

“The gist of it was, `What an awesome responsibility am I up to this?’ `Is this what I want to do for my family?’ ” Ewing said he tried to nudge, not push. “You don’t encourage a friend to jump off a cliff because he’s going to get his picture in the paper.”

Ewing left Hastert alone in DeLay’s office. Sometime later, Hastert walked out and met with a cluster of GOP leaders. “I’m going to do it,” Ewing recalled Hastert saying.

Hastert took possession of the gavel Jan. 6. Instead of giving his first address from the speaker’s chair, he broke tradition and stepped down to the House floor to make his remarks.

“My legislative home is here on the floor with you, and so is my heart,” Hastert told the chamber.

In his address, he promised to find common ground with Democrats and erase the vitriol that pervaded Capitol politics. But he also promised he wouldn’t play the role of pushover.

“To my Democratic colleagues, I say I will meet you halfway, maybe more so on occasion. But cooperation is a two-way street, and I expect you to meet me halfway, too.”

Historically, the level of clout associated with the role of speaker has waxed and waned, though since the War of 1812 the job has reached far beyond playing parliamentary traffic cop to the myriad bills and resolutions crisscrossing their way over the House floor and being third in line for the presidency after the vice president. More often than not, elevation to speaker is an ascension to helmsman for the majority party’s national agenda.

No one exemplified that more than Gingrich, who said he would quit his post as speaker in the wake of his party’s dismal performance in the Nov. 3 midterm elections. The GOP lost five House seats, giving Republicans a mere six-seat majority.

Hailed by backers as a visionary, Gingrich rocketed to the pinnacle of Washington politics after his leading role in the GOP’s Contract With America agenda helped Republicans take over Congress in 1994. But in the years that followed, Gingrich relied on confrontation and vitriol to rule Capitol Hill a style that eventually was his undoing.

Hastert may not be a visionary, Republicans say, but he is an adroit negotiator and a healer someone who listens.

“Newt could listen, too,” Ewing said, “but I think Denny is a better listener and not as saddled with preconceived opinions as Newt was.”

Illinois Republican Joseph Cannon, House speaker from 1903 to 1911 and a man with Napoleonic self-image and unprecedented command over Congress, used to gleefully proclaim to his enemies on the floor, “Me! The Beezlebub! Me! The Czar!”

In his address to fellow representatives after his election as speaker, Hastert made this proclamation:

“Everyone on the squad has something to offer. You never get to the finals without a well-rounded team. Above all, a coach worth his salt will instill in his team a sense of fair play, camaraderie, respect for the game and for the opposition. Without those, victory is hollow and defeat represents opportunities lost.”

As a coach, he concluded, “I learned that it is work, not talk, that wins championships.”

ALEX RODRIGUEZ, Sun-Times staff

Contributing: Lynn Sweet and Chuck Neubauer

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