CHICAGO – President Bush stood shoulder-to-shoulder with embattled House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday, offering a powerful boost in his moment of need and declaring the country "better off" with Hastert in power.
"I am proud to be standing with the current speaker of the House who is going to be the future speaker of the House," Bush said as he opened a speech to raise money for two Illinois congressional candidates.
When Bush arrived in Marine One at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, he was greeted by rock star Bono, model Christy Turlington and Bobby Shriver, who runs an organization called DATA — or Debt, AIDS and Trade in Africa. The three were in Chicago to attend an AIDS event.
Turlington and Bono, who has been active in raising awareness of poverty and AIDS, climbed the stairs of Air Force One with the president. Bono flashed a peace sign before the group went in the plane for a 10-minute conversation with Bush about AIDS. The three visitors left the plane before it took off for Washington.
The $1.1 million fundraiser provided the first picture of President Bush with Hastert since a scandal broke involving a Republican congressman pursuing underage male pages. Although the president has spoken out in Hastert's defense — tepidly at first and more directly at a White House news conference on the eve of the fundraiser — their appearance together was an endorsement of Hastert when nearly half the country says he should resign.
Their long-scheduled fundraiser was sponsored by Hastert and came on the same day that the House Ethics Committee questioned ex-Rep. Mark Foley's chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, for five hours. Fordham has said he took complaints about Foley's conduct to Hastert's top aide three or four years ago.
Hastert's office has said it learned of Foley's conduct only last fall, and the speaker has said he first was notified in late September this year.
Bush defended him, without mentioning the Foley case.
"Speaker Denny Hastert has a long record of accomplishment," Bush said. "He's not one of these Washington politicians who spews a lot of hot air. He just gets the job done."
The crowd of Republican donors standing in a downtown Chicago hotel ballroom responded with loud applause.
"I have worked with him up close," Bush continued. "I know what it's like to work with a speaker who is determined to protect the United States of America and a speaker who wants to make sure that everybody who wants a job in America can find one.
"He has delivered results for the people," Bush said. "This country is better off with Denny Hastert as the speaker and it will be better off when he is the speaker the next legislative session."
Whether Hastert and the Republican Party will remain in power in the House next year is in doubt. Democrats need to pick up just 15 seats to win control, and Republican-held seats across the country are in jeopardy in the wake of the Foley case, continuing violence in Iraq and the dissatisfaction with Bush's leadership.
The beneficiaries of the fundraiser — Republican congressional candidates Peter Roskam and David McSweeney — spoke differently about the president.
McSweeney noted that although Bush lost Illinois in 2004, he won the district where he is running. "When the president comes to town, it provides good exposure," said McSweeney, who is in an uphill battle to oust freshman Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean.
Roskam said he was thankful for the president's "tremendous fundraising boost" and his leadership on tax cuts and keeping America safe. But Roskam's Democratic opponent, Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, has been criticizing his close ties to the party, and Roskam tried to distance himself from Bush's policies on education, spending and immigration.
"I've been very vocal in my separation and criticism of the administration," he said.
Attendees at the fundraiser had to donate at least $1,000 per person, and the invitation advertised that $10,000 would get a photo with the president, "two people, one click," and 10 reception passes.
Sen. John Kerry tried to use the Bush-Hastert appearance to raise money for Democratic candidates, calling it "a meeting of the no accountability caucus of the Republican Party."
"Denny Hastert has been the longest-running Republican speaker in history," Kerry, D-Mass., wrote in an e-mail to supporters. "But in 25 days, we can take the gavel out of his hands — and the smirk off George W. Bush's face."