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Ex-Speaker Hastert: Americans can't stomach long-term conflicts
By Robert Sanchez | Daily Herald Staff

Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert recently visited Wheaton College, his alma mater, to give a lecture about energy policy and the environment. The event was sponsored by Wheaton College's Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Hastert greets longtime friend and former football coach Don Church.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Hastert says the Illinois Republican party needs to start looking for some fresh leadership, and points to people such as Peter Roskam and Tom Cross as possible standard bearers.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Hastert says he hopes President Obama succeeds, but he disagrees with his economic policies.


Daniel White | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/2/2009 1:01 PM

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Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has seen many changes in the political landscape.

The Plano Republican saw his own lengthy run as speaker come to an end in 2006 when Democrats regained control of the House.

And on the same day Hastert recently visited Wheaton College, his alma mater, Illinois senators were voting to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office.

So when Hastert sat down one-on-one with the Daily Herald, we asked him to share his thoughts about the changes we're experiencing as a state and a nation.

Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. How has retirement been?

A. Everything is busy. I am on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I am on the (Chicago) 2016 committee to bring the Olympics to Chicago. I think that's a great thing for northern Illinois. We've never had the Olympics in the Midwest before.

I also am on Advance Illinois, which is an education group with Gov. (Jim) Edgar and Bill Daley to try to bring up the educational level of Illinois students so we are competitive in the world. I am also doing three or four other things.

Q. One of your unpaid jobs was trying to push a construction spending plan for the state as part of a bipartisan effort with Democrat Glenn Poshard. Are you disappointed the proposal didn't go through?

A. In politics, sometimes you can do something and sometimes you can't. What I found out is the vitriol between the governor and the speaker was great. Everybody else was at the table. But there was such a dislike between those two individuals, it basically gridlocked the state.

The sad part was there was $9 billion in federal dollars - tax money Illinois people paid at the gas pump - that we can't access because you have to have $1 of state money for every $4 in federal money you bring back.

People paid this money, they can't get it and we'll lose it. It's basically in a pot in Washington, and if other states come up there with matching funds, it disappears.

Q. Do you regret lending your political clout to trying to get a capital projects proposal passed?

A. It was the right thing to do because it was for the people of the state.

Q. It's been said Illinois Republicans look to you for leadership even though you aren't in public office. Are you getting a lot of phone calls from Republicans seeking advice?

A. We have to look to our emergent leaders in the state. I am an old geezer who can say, "This is what we used to do." But you have to look at new leaders, guys like Peter Roskam and John Shimkus in Congress and Tom Cross in the Illinois House. These are guys who are going to emerge and really be the leaders of the state, and we've got to help them. We've got to listen to them. We've got to give them the ability to get things done. And so that's where I think the future is for the Republican Party.

Q. Any advice on how the Republicans can take advantage of this moment in Illinois history?

A. What people want is for government to work. I think when you put too much weight on one side of the teeter-totter, it isn't going to work.

When you have a governor who was hand-picked by the mayor and the speaker and the Chicago City Council, and then, all of a sudden, they can't get along with each other and they can't play in the same sandbox, it's the people of Illinois that lose.

When the same people dominate your legislature - both in the Senate and the House - there's a detriment out there. So I think you need to bring some balance to government. I would certainly hope that our leadership could move forward and get the message out.

Q. President Obama has talked about his desire to be bipartisan. But the vote on the economic stimulus package went straight down party lines. Is it just the state of politics in America right now?

A. When you really analyze it, if you want to stimulate economic growth, you have to have people investing, creating capital and creating jobs. Basically, a big part of that (stimulus package) went for extending unemployment. It's a nice thing to do, but when you extend unemployment, you take the incentive away from people to go out and get a job. So it almost has a counter negative effect.

And a lot of it goes for people who aren't being productive people. It's extra tax benefits for people who are earning, if they earn anything, a very minimum income, which is fine. It helps them. It puts money into the economy. But that's a short-term fix.

Q. Do you believe Obama can break through the partisan divide?

A. Look, I hope Obama succeeds from the bottom of my heart because it affects the future of this nation.

But I certainly don't agree with his economic philosophy. It's just something where we have an honest disagreement. But I hope that he can rally this nation, that he does honestly move forward on a bipartisan basis - maybe not on this thing.

But I hope there are things he can do on a bipartisan basis because that's what the American people want. They want government to work. They are tired of the finger pointing. They are tired of excuses. They want to see real stuff happen.

Q. How will George W. Bush be remembered?

A. Before 9/11, George Bush was trying to create a better economic policy for this country. He invested heavily in education for all students, making schools accountable. He was trying to get a decent energy policy for this country. He was concerned about the health care quality in this country. He wanted to make sure that Social Security was stabilized.

But when 9/11 happened, he went from being a peacetime president to a wartime president. I remember standing with him a day or two after 9/11, and one of the things we promised ourselves was that we weren't going to let this thing happen again to the United States.

There were terror cells all across this country. I can't say specifically what I know because it's top secret. But we restructured government. We created the Department of Homeland Security. We ended up with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whether people like that or not, Americans don't have a stomach for long-term military encounters. Our preference is to drop a few bombs and declare victory. But the fact is that neutralizing a situation in the Middle East, such as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, takes a long, long time. I remember Bush standing at the dais after 9/11 and giving a speech that said solving these problems isn't going to be a matter of weeks or months or years. It's going to take decades to make sure that we are safe. Now I think, unfortunately, he was right.

Q. What's your opinion of the Obama administration so far?

A. I am not going to say if it's a success or a failure yet. They've only been in there two and half weeks.

I wish this president all the best. I hope he's a great success because that means the American people are a success. The American people deserve it. They are hardworking, good people, and they need a break.

But the fact is, we need to see if this type of economic policy actually works. In the past, it hasn't always worked. I have some grave doubts about taking $750 billion and dumping it into some people who made bad fiscal mistakes. And then taking another $850 billion or who knows what the bottom line is ... That's a long-term debt that somebody's going to have to pay for. And you just can't keep piling that debt up on generation after generation.

Q. Coming back to the 14th Congressional District, do you have any advice for Democrat Bill Foster, who took over for you?

A. I think Foster, to be a good congressman, needs to get back to the district and listen to what the people have to say. I am not saying he's not doing it. But that's what he needs to continue to do. His voting record needs to reflect what the people are telling him.