In a story headlined, "Quietly But Firmly, Hastert Asserts His Power," the Jan. 3 New York Times sought to dispel a misperception that has arisen concerning House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R., Ill. The misperception is that Hastert is a mere front man to the person who really controls the House, Majority Leader Tom "the Hammer" DeLay, R., Tex.:
He was asked who was the true power in the House, he or Mr. DeLay. The speaker is not given to using the pronoun, "I"; ever the coach, his sentences are sprinkled with "we," which is how he began.
"We sit back," he said, "and we do the things that we have to do to make this place work. And you know, Tom can talk about issues that are important to him, but basically we make those decisions that are important, I think."
And who is we?
"My office, yes, I do," Mr. Hastert replied, without hesitation. He let out a little chuckle. "It's an imperial we."
The Times has done a great public service in clarifying this point, because when Hastert tried to correct this same misperception in his autobiography, Speaker: Lessons From Forty Years in Coaching and Politics, published last year, it didn't take. Here's an Associated Press account from Aug. 3, 2004:
As speaker, Hastert tends to operate out of the public spotlight, while Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the powerful majority leader, is a more outspoken conservative.
"There is a perception in the liberal press that DeLay calls the shots, and I march to his instructions," Hastert writes. "That's what the Democrats would like people to believe."
Two years earlier, on July 9, 2002, Hastert had explained to the Washington Post that nobody really believed anymore that DeLay was the power behind the throne:
[Then-House Minority Leader Dick] Gephardt says that Hastert has a difficult job, keeping in check the hard-right characters and strong personalities of the conference he is leading. It is a common view among Democrats, and carries the implicit notion that Hastert is merely a front man for [then-Majority Whip] DeLay and [then-Majority Leader Dick] Armey. They are arguably no more conservative than Hastert, but they are considerably less popular.
Hastert winces at this notion and shakes his head. "I think that might have been the perception the first year," Hastert says. "But it's certainly not the perception any more, I don't think."
Five months before that, in a story headlined, "Hastert Asserts Independence" Roll Call explained on Feb. 21, 2002 that Hastert had recently "asserted himself on two major issues," both of them procedural, and that this was terribly significant.
Three years earlier, on Jan. 6, 1999, the New York Times quoted Rep. David Dreier, R.-Calif., explaining that Hastert, who'd just been chosen to be the next House speaker, was his own man. "No one is controlling him," Dreier said.
There's a very real possibility that Hastert and his fellow Republicans in Congress will spend the rest of his speakership denying that Hastert is DeLay's flunky. But would it be necessary to declare over and over again that Hastert is independent and powerful and not a front man if Hastert really were independent and powerful and not a front man? Just asking.