On a table near the desk of the speaker of the House, nine bears sit in a wooden rowboat, eight with oars and one in charge. But the boat can't...

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On a table near the desk of the speaker of the House, nine bears sit in a wooden rowboat, eight with oars and one in charge. But the boat can’t move unless the oars all row in the same direction. That’s why House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., bought it.

Ever since an odd combination of scandal and turmoil catapulted Hastert into the speaker’s job in 1999, the beefy former wrestling coach — who’s a bit bearlike himself — has pushed House Republicans to work as a team. And he’s had remarkable success. Largely unknown outside Washington, routinely underestimated as a powerless figurehead inside Washington, the accidental speaker has helped unify his fractious caucus, promote President Bush’s agenda and expand the House’s GOP majority.

“That rowboat is how he sees his job,” said lobbyist David Thompson, a former Hastert aide. “He wakes up every morning thinking about how he can help the Republican team.”

But now the Republican rowboat is leaking, and the longest-serving GOP speaker in history is at the center of the storm.

As investigators look into whether Hastert ignored warnings about former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., Democrats across the country are portraying him as a symbol of a see-no-evil Republican House. They say Hastert’s intense partisanship repeatedly blinded him to GOP misconduct — not only Foley’s inappropriate electronic messages to teenage male pages but the corruption of lawmakers such as Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, as well as Bush’s missteps in Iraq and New Orleans. Even Hastert’s defenders acknowledge that his top priority as speaker has been protecting the GOP majority, not investigating the president or his own caucus.

Hastert has shown none of the restless intellectual energy of former speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the frenetic revolutionary who preceded him; and he has often been dismissed as a frontman for former majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the conservative firebrand who anointed him. He does not deliver the polished speeches and Sunday-show ripostes that typify leadership in Washington.

Anything for the team

But he sees himself as a coach, and his overriding goal is to help his team — the Republican caucus, not the House. That team has enjoyed quite a winning streak over the past seven years. Republicans agree that if good-cop Hastert couldn’t have done it without bad-cop DeLay, DeLay couldn’t have done it without Hastert, either.

“Denny really smoothes out the rough edges in the caucus,” said former Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is now Bush’s budget director. “He’s a kinder, gentler guy, but when he puts that big arm around you and says he needs you, it’s hard to say no.”

Coach Hastert is still beloved by his players, which is why he has survived the Foley mess so far. They appreciate how he listens to their concerns, shares credit and works overtime to keep the team together. He schlepped to 42 districts in August to try to maintain the GOP majority; it’s no coincidence that his political arm is called the Keep Our Majority PAC.

“No one ever thinks he’s put himself ahead of the team,” said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., a 32-year-old Hastert protégé who chairs the Republican Policy Committee.

The question is whether Hastert’s quiet commitment to winning at almost any cost will taint his legacy.

He has always been loyal to team players like Foley, who defied his longtime supporters in the sugar industry last year to help Hastert pass a Central American trade bill. He eviscerated the House ethics committee after it admonished DeLay, and tried to change the House ethics rules to help DeLay stay in power. He didn’t pay for a fundraiser he held at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s restaurant until reporters asked about it two years later; the same month of the fund-raiser, he wrote a letter opposing an Indian casino that Abramoff was trying to kill, and received $27,500 from Abramoff and five Indian tribes.

Now Hastert finds himself disputing his leadership team over what he knew about Foley, insisting that he did not know about Foley’s inappropriate behavior until recently, while others say they warned him last spring. He is also under fire for a multimillion-dollar windfall he earned by buying land and then promoting a federal highway nearby.

An unlikely politician

Suddenly, Republicans such as Reps. Don Sherwood of Pennsylvania and Ron Lewis of Kentucky are canceling fundraisers with him, and Democrats are running ads attacking Rep. Michael Sodrel of Indiana and Iowa candidate Mike Whalen for ties to the speaker. Even Hastert’s lead over John Laesch, an unknown and under-funded challenger in his heavily Republican district, has shrunk to 10 points, according to a poll last week.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Hastert is a perfect symbol of a hypocritical party that claimed to distrust government power until it discovered it liked the taste.

“When it’s come to a choice between the integrity of the House or the Republican majority, he’s always put his thumb on the scale to protect the majority,” Emanuel said.

Hastert is 64 and diabetic, and many Republican insiders think he’ll step down no matter what happens in November. But he has confounded expectations all his life.

Denny Hastert was an unlikely politician, a mild-mannered country boy whose father owned a feed-supply store. He inherited a stolid Midwestern conservatism from his parents, and accepted Jesus as his savior in high school.

In his autobiography, he wrote: “I learned from experience that when bad things happen, don’t complain. You play the cards you’re dealt and remember there is a way to win.”

He became a teacher and coach, then led a charmed life in politics, winning a race for state representative in 1980 after a GOP incumbent got sick, then jumping to Congress in 1986 after another GOP incumbent got sick. He was a popular backbencher, and DeLay made him chief deputy whip after the Republicans seized Congress in 1994.

An aggressive leader

In 1998, Gingrich was ousted and Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., was chosen to replace him. But the day before the appointment, Livingston suddenly stepped down because of an extramarital affair, and DeLay within hours orchestrated Hastert’s ascension to speaker.

In his first speech as speaker, Hastert vowed to reach out to Democrats, declaring that “solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness.”

But Hastert soon concluded there was no point working with Democrats. In his autobiography, he suggests he started to feel this way when he visited the office of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and saw a “Gephardt for Speaker” sign. The relationship fell apart after a controversy over the House chaplain, when a few Democrats accused Hastert of anti-Catholic bias. “I have never seen a more cynical and more destructive political campaign,” Hastert said.

Hastert’s team has shut House Democrats out of the governing process, refusing to allow their bills on the floor, limiting debate, calling midnight votes on complex bills that few have read. The Hastert Rule decrees that the House will consider only bills approved by the GOP caucus — “a majority of the majority” — and the speaker has enforced it with few exceptions.

DeLay spearheaded the K Street Project that made corporate lobbyists and rank-and-file Republicans so dependent on party leaders. And early in Hastert’s tenure, DeLay whipped Republicans to defeat a resolution that Hastert supported on the Kosovo war, fueling perceptions that “the Hammer” was the real power. But Hastert and DeLay agreed about almost everything else. And Hastert’s influence gradually increased, especially as DeLay became distracted by scandal.

For example, Hastert encouraged an effort to oust Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., as a committee chairman after Smith bucked party leaders on veterans benefits. He angrily chewed out then-Sen. Robert Smith, R-N.H., for holding up a bill full of pork-barrel projects for vulnerable House members before the 2000 election. He held open a 3 a.m. vote in 2003 on the prescription-drug bill for three hours until he could round up a majority, and persuaded Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., to switch his vote to pass the Central American trade bill.

“Everybody … loves Denny”

Republicans say Hastert wins by appealing to party loyalty and taking care of members with earmarks, campaign cash and other goodies. Conservatives aren’t happy that earmarks have quadrupled under the GOP Congress, but they recognize that the House has passed almost everything Bush has requested, including his efforts to expand executive power.

It is only recently that GOP oars have started rowing in different directions — not only over Foley, but over policy issues such as Social Security and immigration. Some insiders think the loss of DeLay has created a breakdown in discipline.

“Everybody in the caucus loves Denny. The problem is that nobody really fears him,” said one GOP lobbyist who requested anonymity. “I think he’s done.”

Hastert aides say he intends to fight to protect his job, and he intends to win. After all, his legacy is at stake on Nov. 7. He’ll either be the unbeaten coach, or the coach who lost the big one. Either way, he’ll be the speaker who presided over an era of unprecedented partisanship, an era when winning seemed to be the only thing that mattered.

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