Hastert's Farewell: 'My Heart is Still Here'
Speaking from the well of the House for the last time, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bid farewell today to the chamber he's served in for 21 years and led as a "war-time speaker" -- holding the office longer than any other Republican in history.
Hastert returned to the spot from which he delivered his first laudatory address as House speaker in January 1999, a symbolic step he made then to show he was a part of the rank-and-file, speaking from the well rather than the elevated speaker's chair.
"My legislative home is here on the floor with you, and so is my heart. ... My heart is still here," said Hastert today.
Hastert, who has missed more than 26 percent of floor votes this year while battling health problems, including gallbladder surgery early this year, took an usual post-speakership route by returning to back-bencher status all year rather than resigning his seat. He is retiring at an undetermined time in the next six weeks, setting up a special election next year, which will be called by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
Hastert's eight-year reign came in the wake of a presidential impeachment and encapsulated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax attacks on Congress, the Iraq war and the bitterly divisive fall-out that resulted from it, as well as a rash of corruption allegations against his colleagues that helped lead to his resignation as speaker.
In the last days before the transformative 2006 elections, Democrats pledged to be a different kind of majority, directly challenging what they viewed as Hastert's authoritarian stewardship of the chamber. And for the past 10-plus months Republicans have attacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for failing to live up to her pledge of a softer touch, accusing her of the same strong-arm tactics toward the minority that GOP leaders used over the previous decade.
But today was a day for bygones. When Hastert finished his 16-minute address, Pelosi rushed off the speaker's rostrum to hug and kiss the former high school wrestling coach. During his remarks he tipped his cap to her historic achievement as the first female speaker, with Pelosi returning the favor minutes later by noting his run as longest serving GOP speaker. "Long may his record stand," she said, drawing applause from Democrats.
Retired Rep. Robert Michel (R-Ill.), who served as a mentor to Hastert, sat in the first row of the chamber along with other members of the Illinois delegation. And the Senate's top two Republicans -- Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Trent Lott (Miss.) -- crossed the Capitol to be on hand for the farewell address.
Hastert is often referred to as an "accidental speaker," the odd congressional leader who never actually sought the highest levels of Capitol Hill power. Soft spoken and quintessentially Midwestern, Hastert was elected in 1986 to a district west of Chicago. He rose through the ranks of leadership at the side of an outspoken firebrand, Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The duo first worked together running the campaign of an unsuccessful rival candidate to Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for the GOP whip's post in 1989. After the tidal wave elections of 1994, DeLay won the race for majority whip over a candidate favored by Gingrich. DeLay's campaign for the post was run by Hastert.
DeLay named Hastert his chief deputy whip, and together they instituted a hard-nosed vote-counting operation that became the enemy -- and the envy -- of Democrats. When Gingrich stepped down as speaker and then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) declined to accept the gavel after an extra-marital affair became public, DeLay deemed himself too politically toxic to seize the gavel and managed his friend's campaign for speaker.
Hastert, as he noted in his remarks, is most proud of overseeing the chamber after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, along with a rare rush of bipartisanship that led to a series of anti-terror bills passing in the months that followed. "I became a war-time speaker, and together, we became a war-time Congress," he told his colleagues today.
He received a bipartisan ovation when he declared the nation safer "because of the actions taken here by our Congress," but only Republican cheers when he said he was still "honored to call [President Bush] a friend."
Hastert's last days as speaker were mired in scandal, as he hid from th public last fall, not fully explaining his knowledge of the salacious instant messages ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had been sending for years to former House pages. An ethics committee investigation later declared that it believed the former speaker was made aware of the Foley issue but never acted on it. In addition, some watchdogs questioned a multi-million-dollar earmark Hastert sought to benefit roadways near property he owns.
And Hastert watched his close friend DeLay, enmeshed in a multitude of scandals, get run out of Congress last year, just one of more than a dozen House Republicans who have been ensnared in corruption probes under his watch. Bob Ney, the former Ohio congressman now serving a federal prison sentence, was named chairman of the House Administration Committee back in 2002 at Hastert's bidding.
"Did we get it all right? Of course not," Hastert said today, not explaining what went wrong.
Noting the tradition of wrestlers to leave their shoes on the mat after their last match, Hastert said: "I do hope that I've left a few footprints behind. ... May God bless you, may God bless this House, and may God bless the United States of America. Goodbye, friends."
November 15, 2007; 4:45 PM ET
Categories: GOP Leaders , House
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