There is only one Ronald Reagan, and people will be enamored of his unique leadership and accomplishments a century from now. That said, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s leadership and mettle increasingly resembles Mr. Reagan, an observation brought to my attention most recently by someone who served with Mr. Reagan long and closely.
Twice in as many weeks, Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, has gone to the well of the U.S. House and corralled disparate ranks with speeches from the heart, first restoring calm in the unnecessary chaplain dispute and second passing the vital counter-drug emergency supplemental. Mr. Hastert, while not Mr. Reagan, still offers timely lessons in leadership and common sense.
Too often, the Hill’s corridors are littered with uninspired cynics, angling to create divisions in a quest for the unholy grail of recognition. Mr. Hastert stands in stark contrast. His style is simple, direct, real. He is one of democracy’s unsung lighthouses. He stands on bedrock character, spilling light into the darkness as necessary, unchanged by storm or calm. Whether most Americans or Republicans for that matter recognize it yet or not, their current Speaker of the U.S. House is a leader worth following.
Unlike Mr. Reagan, Mr. Hastert is seldom feted as a great orator. He has no pretense to that label. Still, his confidence as Speaker is growing, and so too is his acumen. Mr. Hastert’s hard work mirrors Heartland America, and there is slow-growing appreciation for that quality. He is an elegant understatement in a world of aspiring leaders bent on overstatement, an example of where a high school teacher of 16 years and wrestling coach can with hard work and a little luck end up.
Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” was not written for a politician, but it fits Mr. Hastert. A self-described “workhorse,” he is part Jimmy Stewart’s guileless Mr. Smith, part hard-toiling Clydesdale. When he believes in an issue, he is a missionary; he doesn’t quit until he has won, or lost honorably.
Not surprisingly, his vision, like Mr. Reagan’s, is simple.
Smaller federal government, more responsive and less onerous.
A strong military, rapidly deployable, accountable, not overextended.
A nation that pays its bills, and leaves enough for the common man to pay his, and save.
More people willing to care about the nation’s future, from education to affordable health, from national pride to a drug-free culture.
Like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Hastert is a listener, unflappable, disinterested in scuffing about in the foibles of others. Like Harry S. Truman and Mr. Reagan though not Newt Gingrich, “Tip” O’Neill, Bill Clinton or Al Gore Mr. Hastert is blessed by what others might curse; he is habitually underestimated.
In this election year, what Mr. Hastert possesses is golden real sincerity and principle, low-key leadership and a penchant for finding middle ground in a badly divided chamber.
C.S. Lewis, in “A Bent World,” wrote longingly for a leader such as Mr. Hastert: “We demand of our rulers such qualities as ‘vision,’ ‘dynamism,’ ‘creativity,’ and the like… . We should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale everywhere … but give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay … and has learned his job”
In 2000, Republican leadership should be shepherding not king-making, coaching not bombastic rabble-rousing. Clarity is key, but Mr. Hastert has the knack. He steadied a chamber battered by impeachment, passed the first on-time budget since 1974, and convinced Democrats to join Republicans to pass six of his top 10 bills last session. He got the second balanced budget passed in two years, a feat not seen since 1960.
Last month, he pounded two more fast balls. First, he quieted the chaplain appointment with a speech that got little mention in Washington, but won kudos in the Heartland. A lifelong Protestant, he offered sentiments much needed in the age of hate-the-other identity politics. “I agree with the Catholic Church on many things … that we should protect the unborn … the mission of Catholic schools … work to help the poor… . I have the greatest respect and admiration for the pope, who has done so much to bring peace to our troubled world, and played such a critical role in ending the scourge of communism in Eastern Europe.” Then he appointed the first Catholic chaplain in U.S. history.
On the emergency counter-drug supplemental, his words put the vote over the top and brought Democrats and Republicans to the floor in support of an urgent priority.
With a billion dollars in counter-drug aid now riding on whether that bills passes the Senate and dozens of individual Republican House races arguably in the balance Mr. Hastert’s leadership should be followed.
Mr. Hastert may be a quiet Clydesdale, but his instincts are Reagan all the way unencumbered contentment with principled decision-making, plain talk, good cheer, common sense and unceremonious respect for others and the truth.
Robert B. Charles was chief of staff and chief counsel to the National Security Subcommittee of the Government Reform Committee 1995-1999, and chief staffer to the Speaker’s Task Force for a Drug Free America 1997-1999.