Jewish World Review July 6, 2001 / 15 Tamuz, 5761

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

New comedian in the House (of Representatives) -- LADIES and gentlemen, please put your hands together and give it up for our next guest, that new stand-up comic, Denny "Hoot-and-a-Half" Hastert, Speaker of the House!

Denny debuted as a straight-faced comic the other day on CBS News' "Face the Nation," arguing that one of his fellow Republicans, Sen. John McCain, "shouldn't bully members of the House of Representatives" to get them to back the House version of his campaign finance reform bill.

Quoth Denny: "I don't care what party they're in. They ought to be able to make up their mind on what piece of legislation they're going to pass, based on the merits."

It seems that McCain, as the House vote on the reform approaches, has been gently putting the arm on many of the 55 House Republicans for whom he campaigned last year. In a letter to one of them, Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, McCain reminded him of "our personal conversations about our shared passion for reform. We both promised to lead the fight to make meaningful campaign finance reform."

As your garden-variety bullying goes, this is pretty tame stuff.

Hastert's own House lieutenants, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both have reputations for muscling the faithful that far exceed McCain's. They don't call DeLay, the former termite exterminator, "The Hammer" because he always wanted to be a carpenter.

If there is any general rap against Hastert himself among some fellow Republicans, it is that he is too much of a marshmallow in his own dealing with his GOP brethren, and with the hated Democrats. As enforcer-like speakers go, he is no Sam Rayburn, Charlie Halleck or even Tip O'Neill.

In the new and excellent O'Neill biography by Jack Farrell of the Boston Globe, the late Democratic speaker's former deputy, Jim Wright of Texas, says the speakership gave O'Neill "a hunting license to persuade."

Farrell quoted the late Rep. Joe Moakley of Massachusetts on O'Neill: "He just had a way of putting his arm around somebody and putting that Irish face in your face and just making a friend out of you."

Farrell, who covered O'Neill as a reporter, adds: "The sociable times and favors he shared with them fostered a feeling of obligation among the members of Congress, until they found it difficult to say no."

O'Neill himself repeatedly told the story of a Mrs. O'Brien, who confessed that she hadn't voted for him. When O'Neill asked why, she supposedly said: "You never asked me." So O'Neill never hesitated to ask them.

The effective politician also knows that if you want somebody's support, once is not enough; you have to keep on asking - and giving. As in the story of the other politician who was shocked to know that a voter for whom he had done a favor a year ago wasn't voting for him this time around. "What," the voter demanded to know, "have you done for me lately?"

Hastert's comical complaint against McCain for leaning on fellow Republicans for whom he had done a political favor would surely cause Lyndon Johnson to turn over in his grave, if LBJ's prodigious ears could still pick up the gripe.

Johnson as the Senate majority leader and as president never found an arm he wouldn't twist if he wanted something from the rest of the body to which it was attached. The old quid pro quo, a fancy label for mutual back-scratching, comes as naturally to the good politician as saying he wasn't in the room when a bad decision was made.

One of Jimmy Carter's big failings was that he never learned when and how to ask for support. He seemed to regard mutual back-scratching as somehow dirty and he never really got the hang of it, or so fellow Democrats in Congress widely thought.

Muscling, of course, can go too far, as Richard Nixon learned by often running roughshod over his opponents. He had little good will left in the bank when he could have used some in the dark days of his impeachment hearings and resignation.

But Speaker Hastert had to be kidding when he tried to take McCain to the woodshed over reminding his colleagues that he holds their IOUs. It has been ever thus, and will continue to be.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

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