Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whose retirement Nov. 26 brought a close to more than 20 years of public service, sat down one-on-one with the Daily Herald to talk about his career and his future.
The interview took place last month in his new Yorkville office, a space that will serve as the office of the former speaker for the next five years. Two of his longtime staff members are working for him there, scheduling appearances at local events and schools and organizing a room full of papers, records and memorabilia collected during his years in office. Much of that material will be donated to the J. Dennis Hastert Center For Economics, Government and Public Policy at Wheaton College, Hastert's alma mater.
Below is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and space.
Daily Herald: Tell us what you've been up to since your retirement.
Hastert: I've been just trying to figure out what I'm going to do. I think there's some great opportunities. I'd like to help make sure that the Chicago (2016) Olympics comes to fruition. I think that's a great thing for this area, first of all for Chicago but also for the upper Midwest, Northern Illinois, our whole area. I think everybody benefits from it.
Of course you never quite get out of the suction of politics. I've been involved in some political races. I want to make sure we (Republicans) hold our congressional races here in Illinois.
DH: Sugar Grove businessman Jim Oberweis, whom you've endorsed to replace you in the 14th Congressional District, has criticized earmarking, a practice you've engaged in. What are your thoughts on that?
Hastert: Earmarks are things that certainly have been abused in the past. They've been abused, especially in the Senate. …
But on the other hand, when you look at a person representing a congressional district like this and if you spend time and work with local officials and county officials and state officials and there are needs that are peculiar to your district and you fight for those needs.
DH: In the presidential campaign, do you think the Republicans will prevail?
Hastert: It's interesting to watch. You see the ebbs and flows in the whole political process. One side's in power for a while, then the other side's in power for a while. I think that's one of the beauties of "little d" democracy. But I think you also need to look at who's best prepared to serve this country and who can make good decisions.
DH: Who would you rather see the GOP candidate face: Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?
Hastert: Look, that's up to the Democrats to decide. Whatever speculation or wishful thinking, I've learned a long time ago in coaching, you never can wish who your opponents are. You've got to face the ones you've got.
DH: What has the past year of your life has been like? You won re-election in 2006 but the Republicans lost control of House. Did that spur your retirement?
Hastert: I had talked seriously about not running again two years ago. The president and the vice president called me in one day. We had a serious discussion in the White House. They said we want you to run again. I thought, "I will. I'll do it." So, you know, not everything turned out the way we thought it would turn out. But I did put my name on the ballot. I felt some responsibility (that) there were some things I wanted to finish up not just as speaker but as a congressman. And I felt very, very strongly that we could really do some good things on energy policy. … I thought we could really move forward.
But political season came early. It was all about presidential politics. … So I decided, look, maybe it's time. I can get more done on the outside than I can on the inside
DH: Some people have said you should finish your term. The March 8 special election is going to cost taxpayers $1 million.
Hastert: What we did was try to minimize the cost of the special election because both primaries are lined up exactly the same time (on Feb. 5). The special election will be a month later (on March 8). … It can be done. Most of the people who are doing that are detractors trying to fight a political battle.
DH: You mentioned working to bring the Olympics to Chicago. What else is in your future? Will you return to teaching, maybe at the college level at Wheaton?
Hastert: I don't necessarily want to go back and teach five classes a week. I think I can go in, be happy to put together seminars, do that type of work, even working out of some classrooms from time to time. …
And I'm going to do some things in the private sector, too. I would hope to have some ability to do some energy issues. We're exploring those as we speak.
DH: Maybe become a lobbyist?
Hastert: I don't really see myself as a lobbyist and would probably not do that at all.
DH: You've worked on the Prairie Parkway for so long. Do you think the highway will be built in your lifetime?
Hastert: What I did was I put the plans in place and I think it's the right thing to do. As you step down from government, it's going to take other people to follow through and do that.
DH: The Mark Foley scandal -- obviously that came up right before the 2006 election. How do you think you handled it?
Hastert: We did what we could with what we knew. And of course as this blew up, it made a lot of press. It was a thing that the press got into. And I understand as a parent, I understand that problem. But we did what we thought was the right thing to do and we did it. That's what everybody that looked into it, whether their federal prosecutors or the ethics committee, said we did.
But the political consequences for that, the political consequences along with some other things, they achieved what they wanted to do by bringing that out at a certain time in an electoral process.
DH: Is that why the Republicans lost control of Congress?
Hastert: I think that was a part of it. I can't say if it was a big or small part of it. People were tired of the war. There were a lot of situations in there. Certainly I'd be an ostrich with my head in the sand if I said it wasn't a part of it.
DH: Any regrets?
Hastert: Another thing I found out in coaching, is that you figure, gee if I would have moved around my lineup in the 1977 state championship, maybe we would have done a better job. Or if I played this kid in quarterback, I could've done this or I could've called that play. But you did what you did. And I just look as a schoolteacher in the late 1970s and 1980s I never dreamed I would be speaker of the house. …
You know, I guess anybody would have made some changes in their lives in one place or another if you had the power to do it, but you don't. I've had a great opportunity. It's been a great ride. I'm very, very grateful.