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The Not-So-Invisible Man

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Last February a Gallup poll revealed that 66% of Americans could identify Regis Philbin as the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, whereas only 6% were able to come up with the name of the Speaker of the House. That suits Dennis Hastert, congressional man of mystery to 94% of the population, just fine. "I don't want or need notoriety," he says. Too bad. It's coming. With a razor-thin Republican majority and House members on both sides of the aisle already in mid-tantrum over the presidential election, Hastert is not just about to become known; he could be all that stands between a functioning Congress and legislative pandemonium.

When Hastert, 58, first became Speaker of the House, anonymity was his mandate. Following Newt Gingrich's 1998 self-immolation and Bob Livingston's scandal-plagued, 32-day stay as Speaker-designate, congressional Republicans needed a Speaker with an aversion to open microphones and a private life cleaner than soap. They wanted the Anti-Newt, and Hastert--a beefy, obscure, seven-term Congressman from Illinois--was their knight in a husky gray suit. He quickly put his stamp on the office by delivering part of his acceptance speech from the floor of the House. "My legislative home is here on the floor with you," he told the chamber. "And so is my heart."

Hastert grew up hoisting 100-lb. seed bags onto his father's feed truck in Oswego, Ill. After graduating from Wheaton College, he started a 16-year career as a high school teacher and wrestling coach, experience he brought with him to Washington in 1986. "Coaching is something that gives you discipline," he says. "You have to spend a lot of time working on technique and bringing people together to get things done. That's the same thing I'm doing here." Hastert's let's-all-pull-together style proved popular with Republicans in the House. He rose to chief deputy majority whip, and he was renowned for finding members on the fence, throwing his big coach's arm around them and saying, "Let's get this done." Younger G.O.P. members called the ritual "getting Denny-ized."

During his first term as Speaker, Democrats complained the ex-coach talked bipartisanship but didn't establish his own game plan. Suspicions persist that Hastert is a proxy for conservative Republican power brokers Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, both of whom were too nuclear to be elected Speaker following the impeachment debacle. Indeed, DeLay appeared to sweep in and hijack the budget negotiations two weeks ago. But Hastert gruffly dismisses such talk, and last week he was acting very much like a man in charge. While partisans burned with each Florida ballot count, Hastert quietly phoned Democratic whip David Bonior and laid the groundwork for what he hopes will be a functional coalition Congress. He also spoke on the phone to minority leader Dick Gephardt for the first time in months and promised to work on their fractious relationship.

Hastert showed a surprising knack for compromise during the last years of the Clinton Administration. He and President Clinton spoke several times a year and collaborated on a plan to spur investment in high-unemployment areas as well as a $1.3 billion proposal to train Colombian anti-drug forces. Hastert even shocked his G.O.P. colleagues by opening the budget talks with a concession on a minimum-wage increase in exchange for small-business tax breaks. But that may be kid stuff compared with the task ahead of him. Hastert smiles at the challenge: "That's what coaching is all about."

--By Josh Tyrangiel


Cover Date: November 20, 2000



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