Denny Hastert never met a problem he couldn’t solve. He was so good at legislating that it’s possible he would have been just as successful in his career had he never been Speaker at all. That is to say, Denny didn’t need the gavel to lead, but to a greater degree than many know, Congress needed him to govern.
He was as committed a conservative and as loyal a Republican as I ever met, and yet principled liberals and partisan Democrats never had a harsh word for him. Whether as a back-bencher, as my chief deputy whip, or as Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert always did unto others as he would have others do unto him. Many people explain this ‘Legislative Golden Rule’ to Denny’s religious faith or his personal integrity, both of which were towering examples in an increasingly self-serving political culture. But I always thought it was something related to each, but different just the same.
Denny Hastert’s entire political philosophy was based on an innate trust in the collective wisdom of his countrymen. He could never himself have voted for a liberal Democrat for any office, but the fact that millions of well-meaning, intelligent, and honest Americans did just that always reminded him that those constituencies deserved to be represented as much as his friends and neighbors back home in Wheaton, Illinois.
I got to know Denny when he became Chief Deputy Whip in 1995, in those long hours developing and passing the Contract with America bills. What struck me about him then was the same thing that immediately came to mind when I heard he wasn’t running again: his honesty and his will to serve.
He was always Speaker of the whole House, not just the Republicans, and however much they may have grumbled about their treatment in the minority, Democrats never had a better friend in leadership than their Speaker. He took every part of his job seriously and worked as hard to mend fences between Democrat and Republican leaders as he did to help an elderly constituent sign up for the right Medicare prescription drug program. No national crisis – not impeachment or 9/11 – was beyond his ability to work through, nor any legislative minutiae beyond his capacity to master.
It will only be after Dennis Hastert is gone from Congress that the institution, and his constituents, will fully appreciate all he did for our country. The man is just a genius for service.