Former Speaker of the House Comes to UCI

Peter Huynh/New University

Students, staff, alumni and members of the community filed into Biological Sciences III on Thursday, Feb. 23 for this year’s Peltason Lecture on Democracy featuring former Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert.


The Peltason Lecture, an event honoring former UC Irvine Chancellor and UC President Jack Peltason, is hosted annually by the Center for Study of Democracy. This year, political science professor Matthew Beckmann and his Introduction to American Government class had the pleasure of welcoming Hastert to speak for the lecture series.


In preparation for this event, a committee of Beckmann’s students met several times to research Hastert’s background and formulate thought-out questions to ask him during a Q-and-A session. Beckmann opened the event by thanking these volunteers before having a representative of the group introduce Speaker Hastert.


Hastert, an Illinois native, began with a joke about California weather before diving into his speech, setting a lighthearted candid tone that would resonate throughout his talk. The lecture Hastert gave, entitled “Reflections on Washington Past, Present, and Future,” began with stories of his humble beginnings. Speaker Hastert spoke of the days when he was just Coach Hastert, serving as a high school teacher and sports coach at Yorkville High School in a Chicago suburb. After teaching for over a decade, Hastert decided to run for a spot in the Illinois House of Representatives, eventually claiming three terms of office in the state legislature.


Hastert reflected on these early events, reminding the audience of the simplicity of his background. “Politicians are just people,” Hastert said with an air of humility.


The Speaker’s retellings continued as he spoke of his election to the national House of Representatives in 1986. After discussing his growth from a junior member of Congress, he went on to describe how he became Speaker, with no fear of naming names or revealing sentiments on his predecessor, Newt Gingrich.


This level of openness impressed members of the audience, including Professor Beckmann.


“I thought the Speaker was uncommonly direct and candid for a public official,” Beckmann said. “Far from hitting talking point after talking point, Mr. Hastert really answered the questions he was asked.  I also found him remarkably modest.”


Hastert acknowledged that the media dubbed him the “Accidental Speaker” considering the amount of confusion following Gingrich’s retirement. He listed each of the congressmen expected to become Speaker and explained how he ultimately received the title. Upon arriving at this point in his lecture, Hastert opened up his time for a question forum.


Representatives from Professor Beckmann’s class were now able to voice their questions on issues ranging from 9/11 to the current presidential race.


Both the Speaker and the students were clear and candid during this dialogue. To much surprise, the Speaker had no issue answering hardball questions regarding policy he enacted or personal stories about his interactions with important Washington figures. Hastert was so at ease with his responses that he took time to crack a joke now and then, including an impression of President Clinton that was both accurate and hilarious.


Students who served on the committee that researched in preparation for this discussion with Hastert were moved by his willingness to respond to questions they devised.


“What impressed me the most about his responses was that he gave his opinion truthfully,” said Daniela Duarte. “He even told us inside stories about working with notable politicians, which I really enjoyed.”


The level student involvement in this portion of the event was crucial to Hastert’s content of his lecture. Beckmann felt that his students did an exceptional job in making this lecture a success.


“My Introduction to American Politics students were simply fantastic,” Beckmann said. “They read his memoirs and researched his career, broke into working groups, and formulated terrific questions — questions that were smart, insightful and uncommon. As a UCI faculty member, I was both grateful and proud.”


After this conversation with students, Hastert brought his attention to how he ended up speaking at UCI. The Speaker began to recall meeting Bill Koetzle, a UCI political science alumni. Koetzle won a fellowship to work with Hastert on Capitol Hill and eventually became the Speaker’s “go-to guy.”


“You can volunteer, get involved, be an intern, get out there and do it,” Hastert said.


Hastert’s words of wisdom to the students in the audience were marked with a spirit of hope and encouragement for change. His message moved both students and staff in reaching out to potential leaders and calling on them to get involved in the social and political world around them.


The Speaker ended his lecture by thanking the audience and graciously accepted any questions or requests for a photograph after the event.


Second-year political science major Christopher Galeano expressed gratitude for Hastert’s modesty that was felt throughout the event.


“The mere fact that he was so honest and came to speak to us for free speaks more than words can describe.”