If you watched President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address on Jan. 19, you probably saw two men sitting behind him on the dais. One face was familiar -- Al Gore, the vice president. But the other is still virtually unknown -- Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the new speaker of the House. With the resignation of Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston's short-lived status as speaker-to-be, the unknown Hastert became the chosen one.
Hastert has been in the House since 1986, but if you're like most Americans, you never heard of him until six weeks ago. He has a reputation as a consensusbuilder, but don't mistake that for political moderation. Although Hastert is often referred to as a "former high school wrestling coach," he doesn't seem to be doing much wrestling with issues these days. He has a 100 percent Christian Coalition voting record and has been a staunch supporter of private school vouchers, a school prayer amendment, anti-abortion proposals, defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and other Religious Right pet projects.
Shortly after his selection as speaker, Hastert announced he would meet with Cardinal Francis George in Chicago to discuss how to aid ailing Catholic schools in the area. As Hastert put it, "When we talk about education, we talk about education for all children, public and private."
This suggests a parity that is a constitutional and public policy fiction. The Constitution gives us free speech, but the government is not required to buy you a printing press. Similarly with education, the Supreme Court squarely decided in 1925 that religious groups can establish private school systems as alternatives to public schools, but the justices have never indicated that all taxpayers must provide revenue for them.
Contrast Hastert the coach with exprofessional wrestler Jesse Ventura, the newly installed Minnesota governor. Ventura is not an advocate of big government or excessive regulation -- he is irritated that he must pay a tax on his four hovercraft, which noisily cruise the lakes of his state -- but he does support public schools as a crucial government function that wouldn't be helped by private school vouchers.
On his official campaign website, Ventura noted, "I am a proud product of the Minnesota public school system. Instead of giving families vouchers, tax credits or deductions to help their children get into private schools, I believe we should be supporting our public school systems."
The views of Hasten and...