Rep. J. Dennis Hastert on Thursday said he had felt like a “prisoner” of his office as House speaker, unable to enjoy the camaraderie of his fellow lawmakers.
As Hastert prepares to formally announce today his decision not to seek reelection to the Illinois seat he first won in 1986, he reflected on a political career in which he became the longest-serving Republican speaker.
After the 2006 election gave Democrats the majority, ending Hastert’s eight-year reign as speaker, he lost the trappings of a grand office, plane service to and from Washington, and the security detail provided to the second in the succession line to the presidency (after the vice president).
But returning to the life of a simple congressman from Plano has been rewarding, Hastert said, letting him renew friendships with other members that hadn’t been possible when lawmakers were looking to him for favors.
“When you are speaker, you’re almost a prisoner in that office,” Hastert said. “You really didn’t go out of your office, because they had 26 people asking you for something without an appointment, just trying to grab you. You were vulnerable every time you walked out.”
Now, he said, “I can get on the floor and talk with people and kind of touch everybody without the same people in your face asking for something all the time.”
Still, Hastert said it was time to leave Washington and his diminished role in shaping policy.
“I see an awful lot of policy being made that, you know, I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “But that’s what being in the majority and the minority are all about.”
He said he planned to serve his full term, but he wouldn’t rule out leaving early.
Hastert’s public service has coincided with the evolution of his district from a rural to an increasingly exurban existence. He said he called on consensus-making skills learned while he was in a less-partisan statehouse.
“I’ll tell you one thing, he never shortchanged Chicago,” Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley said recently. “He did not just exclude us because maybe we were a Democratic city or we vote for the opposite for national or statewide office. He was always a very good public servant.”
Hastert said Democrats were able to gain control of Congress primarily because of American impatience with progress in Iraq -- not because of what some others have called a culture of corruption surrounding a powerful Republican Congress.
“The American people would like to see a war of three months and drop a bomb from 40,000 feet and say, ‘We’ve done the job,’ ” Hastert said. “But to really make changes in government in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan is a long, hard, dirty process.”
Hastert was serving as chief deputy whip to the powerful then-Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, in the midst of President Clinton’s impeachment process, when House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) withdrew in December 1998 amid disclosures of marital infidelity.
Hastert’s pragmatism with his colleagues quickly earned him the speaker’s post, from which he dealt with passage of the Bush tax cuts and expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, among other accomplishments.
Hastert, a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s GOP bid for the presidency, said he believes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has “the upper leg” toward the Democratic nomination.
Opposition to the war is “being played out by every Democratic nominee for president,” he said. “So next year is not going to be a particularly good year for Republicans. “That’s not the reason I’m getting out, but we ought to face reality.”