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Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is a perfect poster child for the Republican Party: Bloated and out-of-control.
With his multiple chins spilling over a too-tight dress shirt collar, Hastert is at once buffoon and bluster – a belching dispenser of contradictory hot air spilling out of an out-of-shape mass of fat. But he’s also very, very dangerous.
A former high school wrestling coach, Hastert’s girth and weight have mushroomed since he came to Congress in 1987 – much like the federal budget and size of government on his watch along with encroachments on freedom and the Constitution by a House of Representatives under his leadership.
I first met Hastert in 1986, a few weeks after his election to Congress. Peter Vroom, a political operative I worked with in Amo Houghton’s successful Congressional campaign that year, had just signed on as Hastert’s chief of staff in Washington and invited me to dinner to meet Hastert and his Illinois-based chief of staff Scott Palmer.
We met over chili and beer at Hard Times Café in Arlington, just outside Washington, along with Dan Mattoon, a Bell South lobbyist with Illinois connections.
Hastert seemed affable enough as he woofed down chili and talked about the campaign but something bothered me about the man. I couldn’t put my finger on it but an alarm bell went off in the back of my head telling me: "Don’t trust this guy." I saw an arrogance and ruthlessness just waiting to be unleashed.
My instincts proved right. When Newt Gingrich, architect of the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, fell from grace after revelations of his affair with a Congressional staffer and other ethical questions, Hastert became the dark horse surprise to take over as Speaker of the House. The mainstream media portrayed it as Republicans turning to a loyal soldier stepping up to take command in a time of crisis but GOP insiders said Hastert had helped engineer Gingrich’s downfall with backroom deals and backstabbing plays.
Under Hastert’s leadership, Republican arrogance increased to record levels. Republican moderates and Democrats say it is Hastert’s extreme partisanship that gridlocked Congress and turned the House into a showplace of one-party excess.
Hastert’s rise to power came at the expense of both opponents and supporters who underestimated his ruthlessness. Gingrich was just one of his victims. So was J.C. Watts, the black Oklahoma Republican who represented a rare moment of diversity for the GOP. Hastert despised Watts, even referring to him in private as the "Republican House nigger," and made life so miserable that Watts gave up his seat in Congress.
"Hastert has exhibited the arrogance of power that leaves him clueless both as to ethical concerns and as to the political damage such arrogance can cause to his own party," writes Quin Hillyer of The American Spectator. "The House GOP’s hubristic culture, the culture that makes its members feel immune to expected mores and to any blowback from a disgusted public — the culture that, even after the Abramoff and DeLay scandals, makes them unwilling to pass serious reforms on ethics, lobbyist disclosure, and earmarks — is what has led the House overall into even-worse poll ratings than the stupendously low scores President George W. Bush has been receiving in recent months."
Hastert goes out of his way to keep Democratic members of Congress out of the decision-making process on Capitol Hill, creating Republican-only conference committees to finalize legislation and keeping not only Democrats but other Republicans out of the loop when it comes to issues that affect Congress.
Republicans members of the committee that oversees the Congressional page system say angrily that Hastert did not inform them when he learned now former Rep. Mark Foley was sending sexually-suggestive emails to young male pages. Hastert claims he didn’t know the extent of the problem with Foley but other Republicans dispute that claim.
In other words, Hastert lied – a tactic that has served him and his President very well.
Just another reason why Denny Hastert is the perfect symbol for a Republican Party gone amuck.