Last March, I met Dan Rostenkowski for lunch at Mitchell’s on Clybourn Avenue. The former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a self-described “kingpin” of Congress who died yesterday at his home in Wisconsin, went to prison in 1996 on fraud charges including taking vouchers for stamps, exchanging them for cash at the House Post Office and pocketing the proceeds. He was later pardoned by Bill Clinton, but not before losing his chairmanship, his seat in Congress, and his reputation—all over relatively petty crimes.
When we met, he had made a kind of comeback—giving speeches, lecturing at Loyola, and preparing to write his memoirs. Born and bred in Chicago, Rosty was also suffering from the lung cancer that eventually claimed his life at age 82. A hulking man—6’2” with a beefy, open face—he was dressed that day in a Special Olympics sweatshirt and wore a star sapphire pinky ring. He insisted on paying for lunch and left a hefty tip. If anyone recognized the man who had been among the top powerbrokers in Chicago and nationally, no one approached him as we talked for 90 minutes.
Here, some highlights of our conversation, which covered more than 50 years of local and national politics and included his thoughts on Mayor Daley, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and more:
On the late Richard J. Daley and his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley: I liked Dick Daley, and I liked the way that he was running the city. We had what was then called an organization; you call it a machine. [Richard M.] surprises me. I didn’t think he’d be good [as mayor] at all. I didn’t think that he had the ability. Richie Daley is a very physical mayor. He wants you to see his mayorship—the flowers [on Michigan Avenue], et cetera.
On former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley: Billy Daley started to come to Washington and, of course, he’d come to see me and I was very helpful to Billy Daley. He’s clever. A palm tree, not an oak, but good at what he does. Very self-centered; he’s busy being Billy Daley, trying to get elected to something. He wants to be a public official.
On John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson: Jack was kind of an upstart. Lyndon Johnson was the Majority Leader of the Senate. Lyndon Johnson was doing things that Jack Kennedy could never get accomplished. Kennedy was a suntanned, handsome young guy. You gotta remember, too, that, for eight years, [Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D.] Eisenhower was just a monotone—nothing exciting. Kennedy was young, and Jackie was a great asset to him, and the press loved him.
On Kennedy’s selection of LBJ as vice president in 1960 and Bobby Kennedy’s attempt to stop the appointment: Lyndon really hated Bobby; Bobby hated Lyndon. I was sitting with Dick Daley when Jack Kennedy called and he said, “What do you think about Lyndon Johnson?” Daley says, “Listen, you’re the nominee, if you put Snow White on the back end of that ticket, I’ll be for it. But this is your call.” Johnson called Daley, he says “Goddamn it. Bobby Kennedy’s running around here [the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles]. Jack’s telling me I’m the choice, and Bobby’s running all over the goddamned city of Los Angeles condemning the crap out of me.”
On how the Kennedys treated Johnson, the VP: They would ignore him, they would make fun of him. Lyndon Johnson would go into see Jack Kennedy and say, “Goddamn it, you’re asking [Speaker of the House] Sam Rayburn for appointments to the judiciary. I’m the vice president. You don’t even ask me?” As VP, Johnson was not doing much of anything. He was frustrated.
On John Kennedy’s re-election chances in 1964 and his short presidency: I think he would have had a problem. Jack Kennedy took his wife to Dallas [on November 22, 1963 when he was assassinated] because they were having a problem with support. College campuses were really turning conservative. I don’t think Illinois would have gone for Jack Kennedy the second time…. Aside from Camelot and a wonderfully delicate, beautiful wife, tell me what else he did.
On LBJ taking over as president after Kennedy’s assassination: What Kennedy did is he laid out a program that he knew he couldn’t pass because he had southern Democrats in all the chairmanships except two. Johnson did it because he was a southerner and Johnson felt, “I’ll show you, I’ll pass everyone of those goddamned programs,” and he did.
On Lyndon Johnson’s earmarks: Lyndon Johnson would say, “Could you help me out on this? I’d really appreciate it.” “I don’t know, Mr. President, I just don’t think that I can do that.” “Well, I’ll tell you what. You’re worried about getting that Highway 93 coming through your area. I don’t think you’re gonna see that Highway 93. The federal building you were supposed to get, that’s gone, too.” “You know, Mr. President, I think I can help you.” They criticized LBJ for twisting arms, breaking bones, but… the country was moving like gangbusters. If Lyndon Johnson didn’t sign a bill every day of his presidency, he thought the day was a total failure.
On Lyndon Johnson calling Rostenkowski about the funds to build the CTA line to O’Hare:
LBJ said, “Well Danny Boy, you did it. Got that money for the trolley train to go out to O’Hare.” I said, “Jesus Christ, that is wonderful! Oh, man, I can’t wait until I tell Richard Daley.” [Rostenkowski called Daley, who then called LBJ.] Next day I get a call from the President, “Danny, I made a mistake. I didn’t mean that the trolley was going to go out to O’Hare. It’s going out the Dan Ryan.” I said, “Lyndon, did you talk to Richard Daley?” He says, “Danny, the goddamned thing’s going out the Dan Ryan. That’s the end of it, you understand?” I said, “You son of a gun, you. You screwed me, you gave it to Daley for the South Side.” [The CTA to O’Hare was built later.]
On Johnson’s reaction to Rostenkowski’s decision to oppose the war in Vietnam:
When I went against the Vietnam War, he said, “Danny, what did you do to me? You stabbed me in my heart.” I told him, “I can’t do this any longer.” I [gave] a commencement address to the Gordon Technical High School. I sat there, and I looked into the faces of those kids. I just couldn’t do it because those kids were the ones who were going to go—not the ones at Yale and at Harvard.
On former Mayor Jane Byrne: I can’t stand her because she’s the dumbest broad I ever met in my life. If that girl had patience she could have been the vice presidential nominee, but you know what she wanted to do? Hire and fire garbage workers. Nutty.
On Bill Clinton pardoning him in 2000: I didn’t ask him for it. Bill Clinton said to [then-advisor] Paul Begala, “Hey, aren’t we going to take care of Rostenkowski? Get the papers. Don’t be bothering getting affidavits.” [The pardon did not go through the normal Justice Department vetting.] I learned about it when [journalist] Andrea Mitchell called to ask me for my reaction.
On how he rates Clinton as president: I think he did a very good job. I think the only other time we were in the black was Eisenhower. [Clinton] was the brightest president that I’ve ever served under. Of all the presidents, the best president was Lyndon Johnson. The smartest president—Bill Clinton, no question about it.
On Rod Blagojevich: How can you ask me about Blagojevich? Who can you ask about Blagojevich except Blagojevich? Blagojevich is off-balance.
On Roland Burris: I feel sorry for Burris. He’s a basket case, and listen, if they didn’t need his vote, they’d throw him out of the Senate.
On Dick Durbin: I like Durbin, but Durbin is so goddamned liberal, and this state is not that liberal.
On Governor Pat Quinn: I can’t stand Pat Quinn. I admire him. He’s totally honest about what he’s saying. He’s a gadfly.
On Hillary Clinton: I was for Hillary [for the Democratic nomination for president]. I think she would have been a great president. She would have been Margaret Thatcher. She lost because people just hate her. [In private] she’s a delightful girl.
On Barack Obama: It’s terrible that we have to have an Obama saying one thing to get elected and do another thing as President. What kind of politician and public service is this where you’ve got to lie to get the office? I don’t agree with his policies—this idea of this money that they’re spending [in stimulus programs]. You know when you’re bankrupt. You can’t keep throwing money at problems without throwing some vinegar [cutting spending] into the mix.
On whether he voted for Obama or John McCain in 2008: That’s none of your business.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune