WASHINGTON – Dennis Hastert's walk off the political stage may be a footnote in history but it also marks the end of a career that is notable for its leadership as the longest-Republican House speakership ever during a tumultuous era in Washington horse-trading.
Nearly lost in the buzz of recent scandal and resignation, Hastert's expected departure is the culmination of a bad year for House Republicans, who lost the majority in the 2006 midterm elections and whose prospects remain unclear following the unexpected death of Ohio Rep. Paul Gillmor this week and retirement decisions by an array of former party luminaries and Hastert cronies.
The future remains uncertain for the GOP he leaves behind. Hastert's plan to step down precedes the end of the Bush administration but was seemingly lost in the resignation announcements by White House chief political strategist Karl Rove and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Much of the attention to party matters has been focused on the stink caused by guilty-pleading Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and the perfunctory selection of a nominee for the 2008 presidential race.
Hastert announced on Aug. 17 from the Kendall County Courthouse in his home state of Illinois that he will be stepping down from the congressional seat he has held for 11 terms. He did not note whether he will serve out his final full term or leave after the winter break.
"l think Denny viewed it as, being the longest serving [Republican] speaker, having made his indelible mark there, he served his time," said Greg Crist, who worked with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and more recently served as spokesman for Republican Conference Chairwoman Rep. Deborah Pryce, who also has announced she is retiring from her Ohio seat at the end of the term.
As speaker from 2000 until California Democrat Nancy Pelosi took over the gavel in January, Hastert enjoyed celebrity among the party faithful and an influential perch in legislative process on Capitol Hill, but in recent times, he has been nearly out of sight. Some say he didn’t have the desire to run for minority leader in January — his working relationship with Pelosi is known as frosty at best — and retiring from his non-leadership seat representing Illinois' 14th Congressional District seemed like a logical progression.
"He has no regrets," said Dan Mattoon, a Republican adviser who has worked with Hastert for nearly 30 years, including during the former high school wrestling coach's successful run for the Illinois state legislature in 1980 and his congressional campaign six years later.
Mattoon said despite the party's huge losses in 2006, Hastert was asked and "would have been elected" minority leader had he not declined. He said warm feelings for the former speaker still remain among the GOP.
"Eight years — that's huge. Things just don't click like that anymore," said Mattoon. "I think his legacy will be that he did the job, he did it well and he did it using Midwestern common sense."
But not everyone — including members of his own party — believes Hastert leaves in a blaze of glory.
"Let's put it this way — no major federal building will be named after Dennis Hastert," said Republican strategist Craig Shirley, who blames the Republican leadership for bending to the will of President Bush and leaving conservative principles behind.
"Essentially, he was a caretaker, and for all intents and purposes, he was the water carrier for the White House," said Shirley. "The [House and White House] were never seen as separate and distinctive and apart, and constitutionally, they were supposed to be. The House basically cowered to Rove and the White House."
"Nonsense," countered Paul Green, political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "You show me a speaker of the House who can take on the president in his own party — it just doesn't happen. Last year was a bad year for [Hastert]. I think there were people like Bush, Rove, the Iraq war — a whole host of things that might have contributed to that."
Hastert's office did not return a request for an interview, but a former aide who did not want to be named said Hastert's last months as House speaker — racked with scandal and arrests of key Republicans — took its toll.
"We were playing defense consistently on a whole host of issues, and I think he did the best job he could have done in keeping the [Republican] caucus together," the aide said.
Certainly, the drift into political obscurity from the heyday of Republican dominance in Washington can't feel good. The GOP trifecta that lasted most of this decade — Republican control of the White House, House and the Senate (minus 19 months of Democratic Senate leadership in 2001-2002) has not only now been reduced to an administrative versus legislative tug-of-war, but many Republicans are wondering how to regain the trust of their conservative base.
"I think the red meat conservatives blame Hastert for not standing up to the Bush agenda of bigger and better government spending," said John Stone, who served as deputy chief of staff for Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., until the congressman's death in February.
Stone said movement conservatives "stayed home" in 2006 out of disgust with the White House and to a large extent Congress, which they saw largely supporting it.
Hastert did lead conservative House Republicans to stymie Bush's comprehensive immigration bill just before the 2006 election. But to some, this show of independence might have been too little too late.
"By that time, it was all too far gone," said Stone, who pointed out that so much had already happened to pound away at the Republican leadership's popularity.
Among the welts and bruises was the April 2006 departure of Hastert friend and booster Tom DeLay, who had resigned his position of majority leader and chose not to seek re-election while facing state corruption charges in Texas. Hastert's attempts to keep his friend in the leadership despite numerous ethics violations were perceived as heavy-handed and backfired, especially since DeLay was increasingly becoming the poster boy for congressional hubris.
At the same time, other Republican House elites and their aides were finding themselves targeted for investigation in the Jack Abramoff scandal. When the disgraced former lobbyist pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and attempting to bribe members of Congress in 2006, he started dropping the dime on his Capitol Hill favorites. Former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney lost his seat and is now doing jail time for conspiracy charges relating to Abramoff bribery schemes.
That was followed by the bribery charges and plea of former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who admitted to using his appropriations seat to sell defense contracts. After that, the early "October surprise" leading up to the midterm election turned out to be the exposure of Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who sent lewd and inappropriate e-mails to a teenage page and had been targeted as a serial letter-writer to the Hill's mail youth.
In the crossfire, Hastert was accused of knowing about earlier complaints relating to Foley and sweeping it under the rug — an accusation he has denied. But the incident exposed tensions in the leadership and weakened the House GOP's focus just before the election.
"I think Hastert was dealt an unfair blow with the Foley stuff," said Pryce, who announced this summer that she is leaving office primarily to focus on her daughter, who is beginning kindergarten this year, and her elderly parents in Ohio.
Pryce barely kept her seat in the midterm election. Living in an already divided district, she noted that Ohio was reeling from Republican scandals at the state level. She told FOXNews.com that "the war, the president, Rumsfeld, that kind of thing," all hurt GOP prospects in Washington, more so than anything the House leadership did.
Also departing the scene after the 2008 election are seven-term Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, Mississippi Rep. Chip Pickering and Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi, whose wife's business has been target in an FBI investigation. With more departures likely to come, partly the result of disillusionment in the mission, the Republican caucus has to take its lumps, too, said Crist.
"You can't really say [the Democrats] won — we lost," said Crist, noting that in the waning years of the majority, Republicans just weren't producing.
"America was interested in a solutions-based Congress — just reach a consensus, find a solution," he said. "With that framework in mind, you couldn't really go to the American people and say, 'Hey, we tried.'"
"I would say the blame is everywhere," said Ron Bonjean, who served as the speaker's spokesman until this year. "It lies in every part of the Republican Party, because we lost as a team, and [Hastert] did his best to keep our conference together during a trying time."
Hastert's political epitaph won't likely be just the loss of the Republican majority. He will continue to be known as a quiet, attentive man who gave his powerful — and in many cases, colorful — committee chairmen a wide berth and was dedicated to building and maintaining Republican cohesion.
According to congressional Republicans, Hastert was extremely well-liked by the rank-and-file, had a knack for listening and charting out strategy based on the strengths and weaknesses of his team's ever-moving parts.
"He cared more about the team than himself, to the point where the cliché fits: he was more a listener than a speaker," Bonjean said.
Hastert is also considered quite the opposite of his predecessor, Newt Gingrich, in that he thrived in the roles of both coach and teammate, not as visionary or self-promoter, said colleagues who remember the good days.
"That's why he stayed in power so long," said Bonjean.