Don't resign, Denny

Posted: Oct 04, 2006 11:36 AM

  • Sometime during the Autumn of 1986 I found myself sitting at the kitchen table of a member of the Illinois House of Representatives who was running for Congress.
  • The reason for being at that table with candidate Dennis Hastert was to rehearse for a debate with his Democratic opponent. Hastert won the debate and won the seat.
  • Shift forward 12 years. On December 19, 1998 I was sitting in a hotel room in Jakarta, Indonesia.
  • In 1998 the GOP, then led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, was supposed to pick up seats in that mid-term election, but ended up losing five despite Bill Clinton being in the throes of the Lewinsky scandal.
  • The day after that election, Newt found he had lost the confidence of his Republican colleagues and, two days later, announced he would not seek re-election to Speaker and would not take his House seat when the new Congress opened the next January.
  • Louisiana Congressman Bob Livingston had the inside track and, with Newt's announcement, became the Speaker-presumptive.
  • On this particular night - late morning, in Washington, DC - the House was taking up the matter of voting on the Articles of Impeachment which had been voted out of the House Judiciary Committee chaired, at the time, by senior Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde.
  • The atmosphere on the House floor, I knew, was toxic, and when I tuned in to CNN I expected to see angry Members on both sides making their case for or against impeaching a President for only the second time in US history.
  • The first thing I heard was about a "shocker Bob Livingston." Having no frame of reference, I feared he had been in an accident, or had been physically attacked. It was neither. He had announced he would not be standing for election as Speaker and, in fact, would be resigning from the House.
  • This was December 19, a little over two weeks before the new Congress was scheduled to be sworn in. The last thing a weakened GOP needed was a leadership fight as the Senate was preparing for the trial of President Clinton.
  • The phone in my hotel room rang and it was Newt. He said, approximately this: "I need you to call the guys you talk to and tell them it's going to be Hastert." The "guys" I talked to were national political reporters.
  • I asked him if he knew where I was. He said he knew I was out of town.
  • "Out of town? I'm as far away from you as I can be and still be on the surface of the planet," I said.

    "We can't have a vacuum for Speaker, so I need you to do this."

    "Newt," I said, "there must be 10 press people within 20 feet of you. Have them do it."

    "They won't get through," he said.

    "What does that tell you about how we got to where we are?"

    "This is not the time for that discussion," he said. "Will you do it?"

  • I said I would and hung up. The CNN Washington bureau chief in those days was Frank Sesno. I could see him on TV, so I waited until he left the set, called his office and told him what Newt had told me.
  • It was like that scene from "Broadcast News." He came right back on and told CNN's worldwide viewers what I had said.
  • I made the other calls and the race for Speaker was over more-or-less before it got started and Dennis Hastert was sworn in as Speaker of the House on January 6, 1999.
  • Yesterday, the Washington Times had an editorial calling for Hastert to resign and suggesting that Henry Hyde who "has a long and principled career, and is respected on both sides of the aisle" be the interim Speaker.
  • I don't have anything against Mr. Hyde, but it will not be lost on House Democrats that he chaired the Judiciary Committee which voted out the Articles of Impeachment and then led the House Managers in prosecuting the Articles during the Senate trial.
  • Henry Hyde, even though he is retiring, would not be the calming force the Washington Times editorial writers suggest.
  • For his part, Speaker Hastert has been a low-key but stalwart steward of the history, rules, and traditions of the House. Tom DeLay became the target of House Democrats in part because Hastert didn't give them any ammunition.
  • In Washington, this week, you would think that the Mark Foley scandal was the biggest thing to happen around here since 1812.
  • On that night in December of 1998, a President was being impeached; a Congressman renounced his claim on Speaker; and, the US was bombing Baghdad.
  • Nevertheless, the House righted itself. The Republic survived. And Dennis Hastert became a very good Speaker.
  • On the Secret Decoder Ring Page today: A link to the Washington Times editorial and to "Broadcast News"; a Mullfoto I really like; and a Catchy Caption of the Day.
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