Hastert Almost Quit Before Becoming Speaker

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search) was flirting with political retirement in 1998 and made an appointment with an executive headhunter when Republican upheaval suddenly elevated him to his powerful post, the Illinois lawmaker writes in a new book.

"I called [the headhunter] to say, 'I think something else has come up,"' Hastert recalls dryly in "Speaker, Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics," from Regnery Publishing, Inc.

He might have gone even higher. He also writes that as the recount of the 2000 presidential election dragged on, his aides briefed him on the possibility that he might become acting president in the event of an Electoral College (search) deadlock.

"I really didn't want to be president, temporary or otherwise," he wrote, yet he decided that he would not pass the office to the constitutional officer next in line if an Electoral College deadlock extended beyond Inauguration Day. In the end, the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling ended the recount and George W. Bush (search) moved into the White House.

In the book, Hastert calls for consideration of a national sales tax, a value added tax or flat tax to replace the current income tax system.

Along with regulatory reform and curbs on lawsuits, he wrote, the switch could increase productivity, and "you could double the economy over the next 15 years. All of a sudden the problem of what future generations owe in Social Security and Medicare won't seem so daunting any more."

As part of the switch, he added, the Internal Revenue Service could be abolished.

"People ask me if I'm really calling for the elimination of the IRS, and I say I think that's a great thing to do for future generations."

In an interview, Hastert said he had talked in general terms with President Bush about his proposals. "I think he's on board on the litigation issue and the regulation issue," he said. As for the tax proposals, Hastert said, "I think that's a piece they don't want to bite off in the campaign. They have other things they want to talk about."

A teacher by training as well as a high school wrestling and football coach, Hastert served three terms in the Illinois Legislature before he won election to Congress in 1986. Beginning with the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, he's had a seat at the GOP leadership table, first as chief deputy whip and, for the past six years, as speaker.

As speaker, Hastert tends to operate out of the public spotlight, while Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the powerful majority leader, is a more outspoken conservative.

"There is a perception in the liberal press that DeLay calls the shots, and I march to his instructions," Hastert writes. "That's what the Democrats would like people to believe.'

After the elections of 1998, when Republicans unexpectedly lost seats, Hastert writes that he told Speaker Newt Gingrich that dissatisfaction in the GOP ranks made it unlikely Gingrich could hold his post.

"Well I'll make them support me," he quotes Gingrich saying of the GOP rebels.

Told that wasn't likely, Gingrich asked Hastert what to do.

"Do what you have to do," the Illinois lawmaker replied.

The next day, Gingrich decided to step down as speaker. That set in motion a complicated series of events that first led then-Rep. Bob Livingston to lay claim to the speaker's post, then give it up and have it fall to Hastert.

On another subject, Hastert writes of his frustration at being unable to reach Vice President Dick Cheney on a secure telephone line on the day terrorists struck in September 2001.

Soon, a yellow light started flashing on Hastert's regular telephone console on a line his staff would normally answer. Impulsively, he picked it up himself.

"I was fully expecting to hear Cheney's smooth baritone," he wrote.

Instead, it was an irate caller, saying, "I can't get ahold of Bush. Colin Powell won't return my phone calls. The economy is going to hell."

"Who is this," Hastert recalls he said, telling the caller to slow down.

"What do you mean, who is this. I'm just a citizen. Who in the hell is this?

"This is the speaker of the House," I said. "Just calm down, will you."