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Article updated: 12/30/2012 7:06 AM

Hastert: 'You get things done by finding compromise'

By Kerry Lester

At the end of the year, J. Dennis Hastert will formally close the door of his government office, provided to U.S. House speakers for five years after they leave the chamber.

The last few months have been a transition for the former wrestling coach, of suburban Plano, as he prepares to leave behind a more than 30-year career as a public official, though not entirely. In his final interview in the role, Hastert reflected on his past and future, and what the Republican Party must do to successfully transform itself in future elections.

Q. Let's talk about how things change for you in the month ahead. Is your government office all packed up and ready to close?

A. It was a long process, packing books and papers and gifts from visiting members of state.

We had to catalog everything. A lot of those papers then went to Wheaton College. Everything is there, everything is set.

For the last few years, I've taught at the University of Chicago, Waubonsee, Wheaton.

I think it's important for students to interact with politicians. See that they're real people.

That's keeping me busy, and that's something I'm going to to continue do on an ongoing basis.

At Wheaton (in the new J. Dennis Hastert Center) I'm going to do as much as they want me to do. I'll still be in Washington, D.C., three weeks out of five (for the lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro LLP). It's not so much lobbying work that I'm doing; it's advising and counsel on how you should approach things.

Q. How has your relationship changed with House GOP Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam since he's been in that role, your old role?

A. When I started closing down my office, I still had my old desk, which was used by Majority Whip Leslie Arends of Illinois in the late 1940s, and was passed down to then-Minority Leader Robert Michel in the 1980s. I stood behind that desk and talked to the vice president on 9/11 from it. When Roskam became chief deputy whip, I called him up and said, "I've got a desk for you." That was a neat thing to be able to pass on.

There are two people I think are real stars in the Illinois delegation. One is Pete (Roskam), and the other is Republican Rep. John Shimkus. I got him on energy and commerce, I brought him on, and kind of mentored him. John is a workhorse, not a show horse. Pete's the same way. They're both kind of go-to guys. People who get work done are people who build trust in the Congress. Those are the people who are really emerging as leaders.

Q. What do you think is the state of Illinois' GOP after a pretty tough election in November?

A. I think there's a challenge for the party right now. I think it's good for the state GOP to really seek some new blood and see new people come along. You have to have a farm club out there. Right now, after this last election, the farm club's pretty much been decimated.

Q. Where do Republicans go from here, on the state and national level?

A. I have always believed we have to build. We get a majority and we get an ability to add and not to subtract.

So many of our issues end up being subtraction issues and not addition issues.

The whole issue of immigration is one of them. When I had my district, it was 23 percent Hispanic. That was a big number. You can't just write those people off. You get into issues about (Republicans) and gay and lesbian issues. Whether a union is marriage or not a marriage, we get down in this minuscule debate all the time, and we end up pushing away the people who can make contributions to the party.

Q. What do you think is the Tea Party's effect on the GOP?

A. I look at the Tea Party the same way I saw the (Ross) Perot guys in 1994. They all had some kind of personal problem with government. They got perturbed enough or agitated enough to come together and be a force. Our government is set up that way, but sometimes it ends up being the tail that wags the dog.

When that happens, again, you get things done by finding compromise and finding people that are able to come together to make good decisions.

Q. If you look back at your political career, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

A. As speaker of the House for eight years, we achieved a lot of things in Congress. New tax policies, health care policies, energy policy. I spent most of my time constantly bringing people together to find ways we could move forward.

Also during my speakership, we changed from a peacetime president to a wartime president after 9/11.

That was a time we had to come together and heal this country. And you also had to protect this country from that happening again.

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