by Dick Armey
In Speaker: Lessons From Forty Years in Coaching and Politics (published by Regnery, a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS), Speaker Hastert (R.-Ill.) recounts his rise from high school wrestling coach to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He offers a look inside the halls of government during some of the most important events in recent American politics and a look inside the head of one of America’s most important leaders. Speaker Hastert also gives a preview of the agenda ahead, particularly on tax reform. This concise 312-page autobiography accurately tells the story of the Republican Revolution, then and now. It is the antithesis of the 1,000-page Bill Clinton auto-therapeutic rambleography.
While I generally find autobiographical books about one’s own political career to be neither accurate nor worth reading, this is an exception. In fact there is one good reason this book should be read. That is, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is an exceptional man who came to high position in an exceptional and honorable manner. His story should be told and it should be an inspiration to others.
All too many people in high office occupy themselves with shortsighted, self-centered contrivances and schemes with no purpose other than the plotter’s personal political ambitions. Speaker Hastert did none of that. He is an honorable man who was called to high office by his peers out of appreciation for his goodness and respect for his ability. Yes, it can happen. Nice guys can finish first. Hastert did and others ought to see that they can as well.
When I read books written by people whom I have known in office, I test the veracity of the book by what I know to be true based on my common experience with the author. Unlike some others I have read in the past few years, I found no report in this book where the author wrote something he knew to be untrue. I found some things that were incomplete and not fully understood by the author, but nothing that was purposefully distorted. The Speaker did what we would expect him to do. He reported events as matter of fact and without prejudice.
Speaker Hastert grew up in Illinois and learned the meaning of hard work as a boy delivering “tons of feed” with his dad. He was a high school football player and wrestler, a teacher and a coach, a school bus driver and eventually the coach of a state championship wresting team. What’s good training to become Speaker? “Try driving a school bus, as I used to do,” he says. “You’ve got to (1) keep the bus on the road, (2) keep your eye on the kids in the rear-view mirror, and (3) watch your back.”
The Speaker goes on to detail his first campaigns, but the meat of the book comes in the next few chapters when he brings the reader into Congress in the early 1990s. It was an exciting time for Republicans. We had presented the nation with the “Contract with America,” ten common-sense ideas that when enacted into law would better the lives of average Americans. As a result of our national vision, we took over the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. Speaker Hastert was part of the leadership team with Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, Bill Paxon and me. The Speaker brings this historic event to life and offers a rare glimpse into the thoughts, discussions, and plans that made it happen.
The same is true for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the leadership change that led to Denny Hastert’s accession to Speaker of the House. “Working for [Newt] was like being a graduate assistant to the professor who never slept. . . . He had far-reaching visions, but something always got in the way of those visions.” Denny also tells how “Some younger members. . . wanted to depose Newt.” The internal struggles in the House are laid out as Newt’s position is challenged, as Bob Livingston becomes Speaker elect and then resigns, and as Hastert becomes Speaker.
“Don Manzullo approached me on the floor. ‘You’re the next Speaker,’ he said, his face six inches from mine. ‘Can you withstand the scrutiny?’ I told him I could. . . . Hours later, Newt addressed the Republican Conference. ‘Denny is the guy who can pull people together, and I support him,’ he said. Once Newt did that, it was over.”
Denny Hastert has been Speaker for the six years since and the next third of the book brings us through those turbulent times, from a vantage point the media do not get to see. Hastert has been Speaker from the height of impeachment, through the invasion of Kosovo, for the hanging-chad campaign that could have resulted in his becoming president, during the passage of one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history, September 11, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Speaker offers up details that give insight into what happens inside the Capitol: “When I took over as Speaker, I got a hold of the museum that owned the dinosaur head Newt placed in his office and asked them to take it back.” The Speaker details one of the ugliest displays of raw politics when he discusses the problems we had with the Democrats over naming a new chaplain for the House.
With details from inside the House on September 11, he tells us: “I hadn’t been on the House floor more than a minute when two of my security details. . . entered the chamber and started running directly toward me. I’m a large man and not easy to lift or move, but those security guys, one on each side of me, scooped me up and hoisted me off my feet. The next thing I knew I was whizzing through the back halls of the Capitol. . . . Our helicopter lifted off the tarmac at Andrews. . . . Looking down from the other side of the chopper, I saw blue-black smoke pouring out of the Pentagon and obscuring the bright day.”
Most readers will find the insider’s story told by Speaker Hastert to be the most compelling part of the book. Having been there with him for many of these events, I enjoyed the walk down memory lane. It offers the reader a look behind doors that are not often opened. But the last part of the book where the Speaker lays out his vision for the future is the section I found the most interesting. Speaker Hastert and I share a belief in the need for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom. And what the Speaker has done in Chapter 11 is outline some specific changes that need to take place for this vision to become a reality.
The Speaker addresses the importance of tort reform–“In the House we’ve passed medical malpractice reform and class action reform–both of those are still in the Senate” and education, reminding foes of school choice that this teacher knows, “competition is good for education.” And, he talks about taxes. He says, “[W]e’re going to have to change our present tax system and adopt a flat tax, a national sales tax, an ad valorem tax, or a VAT.” Having studied all those options thoroughly for several years, I can tell you the flat income tax is the right answer. Nevertheless, it is very good news for America that the Speaker of the House would like to scrap the current tax code, saying he’d “like to start moving on it soon.” As Jack Kemp, my fellow co-chairman at FreedomWorks, has said, the tax system is “impossibly complex, outrageously expensive, overly intrusive, economically destructive and manifestly unfair.” This is an important debate and the Speaker’s support and leadership on fundamental tax reform is critical to moving forward.
The Speaker’s frank talk about the need for tax code reform is an unexpected prize at the end of a book full of hard-won wisdom, funny political tales, and a clear look into the back rooms of Congress that is a worthwhile read for the political novice or the D.C. insider.
Rep. Armey, Majority Leader in Congress from 1995-2002, is co-chairman of FreedomWorks, a grassroots organization dedicated to lower taxes, less government and more freedom.