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Hastert still quite the speaker

Former U.S. Speaker House Dennis Hastert speaks St. Xavier University Chicago Wednesday March 21 2012.  | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert speaks at St. Xavier University in Chicago Wednesday, March 21, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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On Gingrich: “Newt was a brilliant guy ... He was very articulate, with four ideas a day. Three were good, one not good.”

On Romney: “I think that people who run government have to know business. You don’t have to be a businessman, but you have to understand business.”

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Updated: May 28, 2012 1:51AM

There were jabs at Newt Gingrich, kudos for Mitt Romney, connections between driving a school bus and serving as speaker of the U.S. House and opinions on the wars in the Middle East.

Denny Hastert, who went from teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School to become the longest-serving Republican House Speaker ever, shared thoughts as wide-ranging as his background last week in a speech at St. Xavier University in Chicago.

Hastert, who was raised in Oswego and later taught government at Yorkville High, was the representative from Illinois’ 14th Congressional District from 1987 to 2007. He succeeded Gingrich as speaker in 1999 when Gingrich resigned.

On Newt

Hastert talked about working with Gingrich, who remains in the running for the Republican presidential nomination despite being well behind Romney and Rick Santorum in the delegate race.

“Newt Gingrich, I think you’ve heard of him lately, was a brilliant guy, he really was,” Hastert said. “He was very articulate, with four ideas a day. Three were good, one not good. Newt loved to be on TV, and he couldn’t pass a TV camera.”

Hastert said Gingrich alienated many Republican supporters after leading the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He said the Republicans lost six House seats as a result.

Gingrich then resigned, and Hastert replaced him in 1999.

“The media had a time, saying I was a temporary speaker, an accidental speaker,” Hastert said. “I ended up being speaker longer than anyone in the country.”

Of Gingrich’s refusal to give up on the presidential race, Hastert said, “That’s Newt. Newt was always cantankerous and stubborn and also brilliant and articulate, but that’s probably one of the reasons people who worked with Newt didn’t support him.

“Newt really wasn’t good about bringing people together and making the process work. I think that what happened is he began to wear on people.”

In Romney’s corner

Hastert said he wasn’t surprised that Romney handily won the Illinois Republican presidential primary last week.

“I was speaker while he was governor of Massachusetts,” Hastert said. “Being governor of Massachusetts ... the state was pretty far to the left. He was able to come in and actually make changes there and took that over with a $3 billion debt and left it with a $2 billion rainy day fund without raising taxes, which was pretty spectacular.”

Hastert said Romney has what it takes to win the general election against President Barack Obama in November, too.

“I think that people who run government have to know business,” Hastert said. “You don’t have to be a businessman, but you have to understand business, and that’s what we need.”

Hastert said a Republican can beat Obama by winning over independent voters.

“What Obama did four years ago was he picked up a lot of independents and he picked up a lot of people who never voted before,” Hastert said. “It’s my assessment that some of those people are never going to vote again.

“Independents are up for grabs, and if Romney can show he has better ideas for getting the economy going, holding down the cost of living — which includes gas prices — and he has a better plan for this country, he’ll pick up the independents, as well as the moderates and the conservatives.”

From driver to big wheel

Hastert also was Yorkville High School’s wrestling coach and — occasionally — the bus driver.

“The thing that prepared me most for being a speaker of the House was driving the school bus,” Hastert said.

“You have this big thing that you had to keep between the lines, you had all these kids behind you with all types of behaviors, and you had this big mirror and a steering wheel and a drive shift. And you control how this bus went but constantly had to keep your eye on these guys behind you and make sure you watched your back all the time.”

The war

Hastert said a speech by former President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks convinced him the United States was in for a long war.

“He said, ‘We’re fighting a terrorist group that we really don’t know a lot about and people think we can go and take care of and solve this thing in three months,’” Hastert said. “I knew it was going to take a long time and it was not going to be easy.

“We see that terrorism forces are being fed by forces in Iran and there’s a real hatred out there, and things aren’t going to get better before they get worse for a long time.”

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