Crisis in Washington: Illinois wrestler chosen to `heal'

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The Independent Online
THE YEAR of the wrestler is nigh. Before the weekend, Dennis Hastert, a Republican Representative for Illinois for the past 12 years, was one of a crowd of almost anonymous mid-Western conservatives who worked in the backrooms and quietly cast his vote with the party. Now, "Denny" Hastert follows the governor elect of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, into the national spotlight as the latest of the wrestling fraternity to find fame.

The former college wrestling coach, small-town schoolteacher and one- time farm-boy is on the brink of becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, heir to the gavel of Newt Gingrich and the third in the hierarchy of the American Constitution. If President Clinton were to leave office (which he swears he will not) and something untoward happened to Al Gore, the House Speaker is next in line.

It is to Mr Hastert, 56, that senior Republicans have turned in their hour of need. His was the name canvassed after the Speaker-elect, Bob Livingston, resigned in spectacular and precipitate fashion on Saturday. His slightly tousled visage was the one that looked out of yesterday's newspapers, and he has already collected sufficient votes, it is said, to be assured of election when the House reconvenes next month.

In appearance and manner, Mr Hastert could hardly be more different from either of his two predecessors. Unlike Newt Gingrich, he is low-key and stayed out of the limelight for his five terms in the House. He lacks the tall, eloquent, urbanity of Bob Livingston. Those who will elect him and have offered their support, also hope he lacks Mr Livingston's philandering tendencies and Mr Gingrich's chequered marital past.

On those counts, it seems, Mr Hastert - still married to his first wife, with two grown-up sons - is in the clear. He also presents no ideological risks. Like his predecessors - the author of the "Charter with America" and the Speaker who never took office - he is a downhome conservative and a practised deal-maker. Which is why he was the immediate first choice of the two most influential men in the House. The outgoing Speaker, Mr Gingrich, and the chief whip, Tom DeLay, were reported to have settled on Hastert - a deputy whip - within minutes of Mr Livingston's resignation (or perhaps, the more vicious tongues say, even before it), and "worked" the phones to drum up support.

While Mr Gingrich virtually opted out of involvement in the House after his resignation last month, and declined to chair the impeachment debate, Mr DeLay is seen as the chief author of President Clinton's distress. He, it is said, led the campaign for impeachment even after the Democrats' strong performance in the mid-term elections, and it was his dogged recruitment of support that led to last week's votes.

This has led House Democrats, bitter about what they say is the "partisanship" of the impeachment, to ask whether Dennis Hastert will be anything more than a surrogate for Mr DeLay - a fundamentalist former pest-control officer from Texas, nicknamed "the hammer". Mr Hastert's supporters are hopeful that he will be his own man, but also - a word much heard in Washington in recent weeks - a "healer". And his first words to reporters were about "reconciliation" and reaching across party lines. If, as seems certain, he is elected next month, the fractious post-impeachment mood of the House will be his first challenge.

Three Republican Speakers in three months

NEWT GINGRICH Got the big elbow from the voters at the mid-term elections, just when he thought his moment had come. In any case, he was not really in a position to throw stones labelled "family values" at Clinton...

BOB LIVINGSTON

...which meant the Republican baton was handed to the eloquent and urbane Bob Livingston. But Mr Livingston's philandering caught up with him, just as he stepped out of the shadows...

DENNIS HASTERT

...so the time of the farm boy is here. Dennis Hastert, who was also once a wrestling coach and a schoolteacher, is now about to inherit the Speaker's gavel. But the talk now is: he may be moral, but is he his own man?

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