Speaker: Fighting the Good Fight

If you were searching for someone to play the role of Speaker of the House in a movie about power and politics in Washington, Denny Hastert looks like he came right out of central casting.

The big, burly, ham-fisted congressman from the farm fields of Illinois not only looks like a tough, no-nonsense, gavel-wielding powerbroker who rules the unruly 435-member House of Representatives, he has a real, quintessential, Norman Rockwell, all-American farm boy life story to go with it.

Hastert??¢â???¬â???¢s story, as laid out in Speaker (published by Regnery, a HUMAN EVENTS sister company), has all of the down home elements that would make a great sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I mean, this was a kid whose workaholic, taciturn father and frugal, strong-willed mother taught him the values of hard work, honesty, integrity and simple decency. From a very early age he was working at the Hastert Farm Supply business, hauling Purina feed to farmers from the back off an unheated 1936 Dodge pickup truck in zero degree weather. ??¢â???¬?????You could look down through the floorboards and actually see the road,??¢â???¬  he remembers. Even before he was big enough to heave heavy feed bags, his father took him along on his deliveries to make sure Denny understood what it took to make a living. ??¢â???¬?????Dad would be teaching me the ABCs to take my mind off the cold.??¢â???¬ 

Hastert didn??¢â???¬â???¢t get a weekly allowance like other kids do today, even when they don??¢â???¬â???¢t do any work. Instead, when he was in the third grade his father gave him 20 chickens, telling him he could earn extra money each week by selling the eggs. What a life lesson that was. If you work, you will earn money, if you don??¢â???¬â???¢t, you??¢â???¬â???¢ll have no money.

Life on the farm was hard in the 1940s.Young Hastert cleaned out the roosts of the family??¢â???¬â???¢s one thousand chicken house, bailed mountains of hay despite severe allegies, and hauled tons of feed for his dad in the wee morning hours before school and after school in the heat of summer and the bitter, below zero cold of winter.

In high school, life was even tougher and summers were no vacation. ??¢â???¬?????I??¢â???¬â???¢d get up at four o??¢â???¬â???¢clock in the morning during the summer, drive the truck down to the mill in Bloomington, Illinois, load eight or nine tons of feed on it — twenty hundred-pound bags equaled one ton — and be home by one o??¢â???¬â???¢clock that afternoon.??¢â???¬ 

During school, ??¢â???¬ I would come home after [football] practice at least two nights a week, and there would be a semi-trailer with tons of feed to unload. No one told me; I just knew it was my job to unload that truck, and I never complained.??¢â???¬  Not complaining and disliking people who do stayed with Hastert for the rest of his life. His motto: quit your whining and get the job done.

The rest of his early years reads like a Horatio Alger story. It is a llfe of backbreaking, relentless work, raising chickens, pigs, cows, entering 4-H contests, playing on his high school football and wrestling teams, going to church every Sunday, and putting in long hours in family restaurants over the fryers to put himself through college.

Hastert??¢â???¬â???¢s “early years” is one of the best parts of his remarkable life story that, as they say, could only happen in America.

??¢â???¬?????Twenty-five years ago, I was a high school wrestling coach in northern Illinois. Occasionally, I drove the school bus. In between, I taught history, economics and social studies. Today, I??¢â???¬â???¢m Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the third highest position in our government.??¢â???¬ 

How did Hastert do it? By his own admission he is ??¢â???¬?????not the most articulate guy or a great speech master; I??¢â???¬â???¢m not pretty, and I didn??¢â???¬â???¢t go to Harvard or Yale.??¢â???¬ 

But he did possess a strong work ethic, a driving ambition to succeed and make something of himself, a devout, rockribbed set of old-fashioned values, leadership skills, and good old common sense. Most important of all, perhaps, he was in the right place at the right time when the job of House Speaker suddenly opened up and Republicans needed someone who could quickly step into the role.

How he ended up as Speaker is as breathtakingly adventuresome as a rollercoaster ride. And his dramatic retelling of the improbable events of 1998 that propelled to the pinnacle of power is alone worth the price of this book.

Many of us may have forgotten the series of politically explosive events that occurred that year. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led Republicans out of 40 years in the wilderness and into majority power, had clearly become a lightening rod for controversy, much of it self-inflicted. A House GOP plot to overthrow him failed. That fall, House Republicans lost five seats that cut their majority to a razor-thin five votes, Gingrich, who blamed himself for his party??¢â???¬â???¢s losses, announced he would not run again for Speaker of the House, and Bob Livingston of Louisiana who chaired the Appropriations Committee was chosen to take Newt??¢â???¬â???¢s place.

Hastert, who was chief deputy whip, had been elevated to his post by Gingrich who gave him a seat at the leadership table. He was a loyal team member, but he did not really know Livingston and thought that his House days were finished. He talked about leaving public office and had made an appointment with a top corporate headhunter to find another line of work.

Then, in one of the strangest turn of events in modern congessional history, as the polarized House moved steadily toward President Clinton??¢â???¬â???¢s impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one of Hastert??¢â???¬â???¢s closest allies, House Whip Tom DeLay, told him to ??¢â???¬?????Hang tight. I think we??¢â???¬â???¢re going to hear more. There??¢â???¬â???¢s a big problem here??¢â???¬  with Livingston. As it turned out, Livingston had had his own affairs and he abruptly announced he would not stand for Speaker.

Minutes after that bombshell hit, Hastert was called to the phone in the cloakroom. It was Gingrich, offering him a new job. ??¢â???¬?????You??¢â???¬â???¢re the only guy who can pull this conference back together again,??¢â???¬  he said. ??¢â???¬?????Nobody else can do it. You??¢â???¬â???¢re going to have to be Speaker.??¢â???¬ 

DeLay was already spreading the word that Hastert would take over and the rest, as they say, is history. The party rallied around him and the chaos of the past year seemed to end as abruptly as it began. Hastert, the nose-to-the grindstone farm boy who impressed Republicans with his political leadership skills, became the most powerful man in Congress.

True, he isn??¢â???¬â???¢t the kind of cosmic thinker that was Newt??¢â???¬â???¢s greatest talent, but he reunited his party, picked good committee chairmen, moved legislation at a frenetic pace and strengthened GOP??¢â???¬â???¢s tenuous hold on the House. No one is forecasting a Democratic takeover anytime soon on Hastert??¢â???¬â???¢s watch.

Hastert has never been known as a hard-edged conservative, but in this book he doesn??¢â???¬â???¢t shrink from pointing out the very sharp ideological differences between him and the ultra-liberal Democratic leaders on the other side of the aisle.

??¢â???¬?????Indeed, there??¢â???¬â???¢s a huge difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats just don??¢â???¬â???¢t believe in what we??¢â???¬â???¢re trying to do — put more money in people??¢â???¬â???¢s pockets and give them more say in the decision-making process,??¢â???¬  he writes.

??¢â???¬?????They want government to have more money and government to make more decisions for people,??¢â???¬  he writes. ??¢â???¬?????They don??¢â???¬â???¢t trust people to spend money wisely. As Hillary Clinton once told me long before she became a Democratic senator from New York, people are basically greedy and won??¢â???¬â???¢t make the tough decisions. They won??¢â???¬â???¢t take their kid to the hospital when he needs to go because they want to keep the money for themselves.??¢â???¬ 

Hastert has had his share of blood-letting battles and many if not most conservatives think his arm-twisting tactics to push the administration??¢â???¬â???¢s big government Medicare prescription drug bill through the House was a giant step backward in the battle for smaller government.

But on most other issues he has been steady and unwavering in behalf of tax-cutting, a tougher national security posture, further deregulatory, free market-oriented initiatives. And he calls for some big reforms in this book — from replacing the current tax code with a simpler, fairer, less intrusive system to expanded Medical Care Savings Accounts.

At the beginning of his book, Hastert quotes Winston Churchill who said, ??¢â???¬?????Short words are best, and the old words, when short, are the best of all.??¢â???¬  That pretty much sums up his plain speaking style and this absorbing account of a remarkable life story.

Anyone who wants to understand how a man from modest beginnings, without connections to big money or powerful people in high places, can ascend to the peak of legislative power in Washington, needs to read this inspiring book.