WASHINGTON – Rep. Dennis Hastert, who vaulted out of political obscurity when Newt Gingrich resigned as speaker of the House more than seven years ago, on Thursday became the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.
Hastert, 64, surpasses fellow Illinoisan Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, a pugnacious politician who ruled the House from November 1903 until the Democrats regained the majority in March, 1911.
"The House has achieved unprecedented success under his leadership," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., noting GOP successes in Medicare, education and tax cut legislation. "It's no wonder Denny has become the longest-serving Republican Speaker in history."
A former high school history teacher and wrestling coach, Hastert was elected to Congress from a heavily Republican district west of Chicago in 1986. A low-key conservative with ties to then-Republican leader Bob Michel, also from Illinois, he was appointed chief deputy whip in 1995 after the Republicans gained the majority in the House for the first time in four decades.
Gingrich abruptly resigned as Speaker in 1998 after Republicans fared poorly in the mid-term elections. The heir-apparent, Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., shortly thereafter admitted to an extramarital affair and resigned his seat.
The Republican rank-and-file, looking for a change from the high-profile Gingrich, bypassed better-known but more controversial people, including then-Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas. They chose Hastert as their next leader, in January 1999.
The longest-serving Speaker is Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas, who served more than 17 years, with two breaks when Republicans were in power, from 1940 through the early 1960s. Like Cannon, Rayburn has a House office building named after him. The longest-serving Speaker without a break was Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, D-Mass., House leader from 1977 through 1987.