Oval: What Bush Thinks of Hastert

It was an unusual segue. On Tuesday afternoon, President Bush made an impromptu stop at the George W. Bush Elementary in Stockton, Calif., where he made a brief statement about school violence in the wake of several recent shootings around the nation. But that wasn't the only thing he wanted to talk about.

With a school principal standing tearfully at his side, Bush used the topic of keeping kids safe at school to bring up the story that has transfixed the nation. In his first remarks on the growing sex scandal surrounding disgraced Rep. Mark Foley and his inappropriate e-mails to House pages, Bush said he was "disgusted by the revelations" and called it a "reminder of the need for people in positions of responsibility to uphold that responsibility when it comes to children."

Yet he threw something of a lifeline to the man who has come under fire for possibly ignoring that responsibility: House Speaker Dennis Hastert. While Bush ignored questions about whether Hastert should resign, he came to the defense of his longtime ally amid growing calls that the Illinois Republican should at the very least leave his leadership post.

"I know Denny Hastert," Bush said. "He is a father, teacher, coach, who cares about the children of this country. I know that he wants all the facts to come out, and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected."

It wasn't a glowing endorsement. After all, Bush didn't explicitly say that Hastert shouldn't resign.

But for a White House that has often been happy to let scandal-plagued lawmakers twist in the wind—the lobbyist troubles and race comments that crippled Tom DeLay and Trent Lott respectively come to mind—Bush's decision to speak out on Hastert was notable and speaks to how much the White House relies on him as their go-to man on Capitol Hill.

Of all congressional Republicans, Hastert has been viewed by administration officials as perhaps the most important figure when it comes to Bush's prospects of pushing through any of his agenda during his final two years in office. Even as a growing number of GOP lawmakers have rebelled against the White House in this second term, Hastert has been the coach who kept lawmakers from venturing too far off the mark.

The relationship has worked both ways: when House Republicans made clear that they would not take on Bush's push for an immigrant worker program, it was Hastert who made clear to White House officials the plan was a no-go. Ditto for Bush's recent attempts to push through Social Security reforms: "Not this year," Hastert told Bush, according to a senior House GOP leadership aide.

Hastert was viewed as so important to helping Bush burnish his legacy that when rumors surfaced earlier this year that the speaker was considering retirement, the president personally appealed to him for him to stay another term. One reason: for a president that has faced criticism for doing too little to consult with members of Congress, Hastert has been one of the few lawmakers Bush regularly and frequently consults. "I think Denny might be his closest friend on the Hill," one House GOP lawmaker, who declined to be named while talking internal party politics, recently told NEWSWEEK. "I can't think of anybody [on the Hill] that is closer to Bush. I think [Bush] talks to him more than any other member."

The feeling has been mutual. According to another House Republican, Hastert viewed his legacy in line with the Bush's. "I think a key reason he stayed on was to see at least part of the president's final time through, said the lawmaker, who declined to be named. (Prior to the Foley scandal, it had been widely believed that if re-elected, Hastert would not serve out a full term.)

Yet it wasn't just friendship that prompted Bush to speak out. It was a political calculation. The first polling since the Foley story broke shows a marked decline in the GOP's fortunes. According to a poll for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, 34 percent say they prefer the possibility of a Congress controlled by Democrats, based on what they have seen or heard over the past few weeks. Just 18 percent say they prefer Republicans to keep control of Congress based on the same few weeks of news.

The same poll shows Bush's approval ratings dipping from 42 to 39 percent—below the psychologically important 40 per cent mark, despite a series of forceful speeches from the president on Iraq and the war on terror.

With five weeks to go before Election Day, Bush has been on a West Coast campaign swing for House Republicans this week. Administration officials had talked up Bush's latest round of speeches. Yet in the wake of the Foley scandal, Bush's push has been largely overshadowed.

On Tuesday, Bush unleashed a new round of attacks on Democrats for their stance on the war on terror, trashing their opposition to the Patriot Act and other programs. "The Democrats have said they share our goals. But when it comes time to vote, they consistently oppose giving our personnel the tools they need to protect us," Bush told supporters at a fund-raiser for California Rep. Dick Pombo. "Time and time again, the Democrats want to have it both ways. They talk tough on terror, but when the votes are counted, their softer side comes out."

On any given day, Bush's tough words might have been the news of the day, but White House officials found themselves answering more questions about Foley and Bush's relationship with Hastert than their new attempts to gain momentum this election season. Yet aides insisted Bush was undeterred by the scandal that threatens his party's hold on power in Washington. Said White House spokesman Dana Perino: "The president has his eye on the ball." He might be the only one who does.