WASHINGTON -- His new title will be speaker of the House, but so far Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert has done precious little talking.
The mild-mannered six-term conservative's low profile since his stunning rise to power two weeks ago presents a stark contrast to that of his loquacious predecessor, Rep. Newt Gingrich, who weighed in on virtually every issue and generated no shortage of controversies.Hastert ascends to the speakership this week, assuming a position behind only the vice president in line to the presidency.
"There are expectations that the speaker will be available, but it's certainly not codified anywhere that the speaker has to be," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University expert on Congress. "We would expect the speaker to be more vocal, particularly when the party does not have the White House, because there has to be somebody out there saying something just to brace up the morale of the opposition."
In a brief meeting with reporters last week in Batavia, Ill., one of his few public appearances, Hastert scolded his House colleagues. "To heal the wounds of Congress, we need to get to work," Hastert said. "We need to start to achieve things. And I think that's what will restore the American people's faith in Congress."
Hastert has used what little time he has had concentrating on preparing the House for smooth operations. He has spoken with almost every GOP member, said Hastert's spokesman, Pete Jeffries.
Jeffries said another reason his boss has avoided the spotlight is Hastert does not want to seem presumptuous. Although it is a near certainty that Republicans will nominate him Tuesday as speaker, to be followed by formal election the next day in the House, Hastert is taking no chances.
Still, even after he officially takes the gavel, little change is likely in Hastert's approach. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato ventured that Hastert's obvious behind-the-scenes approach to the job will make him among the least-recognizable congressional leaders of modern times.
The low profile is true to Hastert's longtime style as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker. And he's made clear in his few public comments that he plans to let more effective and telegenic communicators do the talking for the party, while he stays "in the shadows" forging a strong record of accomplishments for the House.