"Uncle" Joe Cannon of Illinois, the longest-serving GOP House
speaker in history, until Wednesday, was also the most powerful
speaker ever. He relished bashing presidents of his own party with
the club of congressional power. Colleagues dubbed him "the czar."
Another Illinoisan, Dennis Hastert, who surpasses Cannon's record
in office on June 1, is the un-Cannon. For more than five years, Mr.
Hastert has backed President Bush's assertion of presidential
authority on issues ranging from war powers to domestic
surveillance. Colleagues dub him "the coach."
But last week, the coach turned tough. Angered by the FBI's
unannounced raid of the Capitol Hill office of a Democratic
colleague, Hastert forced a showdown with the Justice Department
over the seized documents, and accused the FBI of trying to
"intimidate" him by spreading rumors that he was part of a
It was a rare moment of public assertiveness for a speaker who
has preferred to operate behind the scenes. And for the moment, it
The Justice Department, in a rare denial, said that the speaker
was not under investigation. And the president, in sealing the
documents taken from the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William
Jefferson (D) of Louisiana , bought 45 days to try to work out how
the documents can be used.
The controversy may be just the beginning of Hastert's
assertiveness as key House players depart the scene. For most of his
10 terms in the House, Hastert has worked in the shadow of outsized
personalities, such as former majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of
Texas, who will step down from the House to cope with legal battles
on June 9.
"It's remarkable that this 'accidental speaker' is about to
become the longest-serving [Republican] speaker of the House,
especially when you think of all the forceful, powerful speakers we
have had in American history," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow
emeritus at the Brookings Institution. "His role may be changing
with the demise of DeLay," he adds, commenting on last week's
It was Mr. DeLay who proposed Hastert as speaker, when Newt
Gingrich stepped down after GOP losses in 1998. Hastert's bolder
tone has been building for some time. Long viewed as President
Bush's strongest supporter in Congress, Hastert threw his weight
behind the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and a controversial
expansion of the Medicare entitlement to include prescription drugs.
With Bush's encouragement, he postponed retirement.
But more recently, he has publicly taken issue with the White
House over the ouster of CIA director Porter Goss, a former House
colleague, as well as the Dubai ports deal, which damaged
Republicans with the public on what had been a GOP campaign talking
point: national security.
"But these are small issues," explains Hastert spokesman Ron
Bonjean. "The speaker has carried the president's water time and
time again, because it reflects what House Republicans want to see
In what may become his signature interpretation of the role of
speaker, Hastert makes the case that no issue should come to the
floor without a "majority of the majority. …