Rep. Dennis Hastert became speaker of the House by a twist of fate, and ended up holding the post longer than any other Republican and throughout a tumultuous period of American history. He announced Friday that he will not seek re-election, making official what had been suspected since last year’s Democratic takeover of Congress cost him the powerful speaker’s position.
“Together, we have made a difference. We have made history, and I thank you,” he told supporters in front of the Kendall County courthouse in the northern Illinois district he was first elected to represent in 1986.
He was certainly part of history. A former wrestling coach and history teacher, Hastert, like everyone else, expected Bob Livingston to become speaker after Newt Gingrich announced in 1998 that he was stepping aside.
But when Livingston abruptly announced he would retire following disclosure of marital infidelity, Hastert became speaker. It was a post he would hold from 1999 to 2007 — longer than any other Republican in American history. Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas held the post for a record 17 years.
Hastert, 65, would not say Friday whether he will serve out his term or leave before it ends in January 2009. “I’m going to serve as long as I feel I can be effective in the Congress,” he told reporters.
His tenure included some of the most uncertain times in recent American history — a period in which Hastert’s ascent to the White House was a real possibility.
In the unsettling weeks after the 2000 presidential election, before the Supreme Court settled the issue and George Bush became president, Hastert quietly underwent preparations for becoming temporary president.
His intelligence briefings were intensified, he said, and Secret Service officials came to his office with plans detailing how he would be sworn in as fill-in commander in chief.
“I had just gotten used to being speaker,” Hastert — who would have had to resign from Congress if he became temporary president — said in a recent interview in his Capitol office.
Hastert remained speaker, of course, and he was speaker on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial jets and crashed them into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. From his Capitol office, Hastert could see smoke rolling across the National Mall from the Pentagon.
Post-attack legislation necessary to help airlines begin flying again, as well as other similar bills, were hashed out in meetings in his second-floor office of the Capitol.
“I really took the lead in most of that, and it was an extraordinary time of bipartisanship,” he said.
As point man for Bush’s legislative program, he patrolled the House floor while a roll call vote was held open all night until Republicans had the votes to pass the administration’s landmark Medicare bill.
Hastert worked with Bush on other issues, including tax reform. Sometimes, his job meant telling the president news he may not have wanted to hear, such as warning him he didn’t have the votes to push through administration plans revamping Social Security and immigration policy.
Hastert had his own troubles. Before last year’s election, he and other Republican leaders came under fire for their handling of allegations that former Rep. Mark Foley sent sexually explicit computer messages to teenage congressional pages.
Hastert said he did not learn of Foley’s messages until the scandal broke in late September 2006. The House ethics committee concluded in December that Hastert actually had heard about the e-mails months earlier, but the panel did not find that he broke any rules.
Hastert, a popular headliner at GOP campaign events prior to the episode, severely limited his public appearances in the weeks leading up to the election.
In the recent interview in Washington, Hastert said he didn’t know what his next move will be.
“I’ve got to try and decide what to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.