Richard E. Cohen on Dan Rostenkowski: Requiem for a Heavyweight

FROM JUNE 1996: He was tough, powerful, and unrepentant, even after admitting he had broken the law. A veteran Washington correspondent assesses the perplexing career of Dan Rostenkowski

alt textThat face. A fleshy pastiche shaped by a melting candle or a Hollywood cartoon factory; a huge, drooping, scowling Halloween pumpkin, sinking under age and wear. Over the past few years, Dan Rostenkowski’s face has become a kind of monument to the decline of greatness—the ruins of a once-vital party transformed to flesh. And yet, in the photographs taken just after his guilty plea in Federal court, there’s still something unreadable in that visage, an ambivalent emotion between misery and defiance. This man, determined to gain his rightful place in history, does not want to disappear.

Actually, at this point, ambivalence makes sense for Rostenkowski. As the onetime congressional powerhouse moves from Capitol Hill to the Federal pen, his image has become more muddled than ever. In Chicago, the Tribune and Royko pay homage to his accomplishments and are sympathetic to Rosty’s contention that prosecutors have singled him out, while the Sun-Times and its investigative reporters, who were way out front in detailing his legal problems, offer no remorse. In Washington, where Rostenkowski made frequent visits even after he was defeated for reelection in 1994, his many friends in the lobbying community treated his downfall like a death in the family. Democrats still in office, meanwhile, were conspicuously quiet. Much of the public, including many of his own constituents, knew him less for his extensive accomplishments than for his symbolic role—as a corrupt and antiquated embodiment of both Congress and the Democratic Party, when both institutions had gone adrift and lost their ethical bearings.

These mixed signals should not be a surprise. Rostenkowski’s performance in office has been a source of controversy, even among his Democratic pals. But, as I have discovered while reporting for years on his congressional activities, and now, working on his biography, this seemingly straightforward politician is a complex figure whose life has been a road map to the major changes in political life during the past four decades. That enormous, jowly face reflects vast shifts in attitudes by the people toward the government.

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For more than a decade, this man who never made it through Loyola University had more impact on the details of Federal spending and taxes than any other single American. True, he had help from the eager and bright staffers who have become essential to life on Capitol Hill. But in his constant discussions with them and with his dwindling band of trusted House colleagues, Rostenkowski also used his own horse sense—of both politics and sound public policy. In making those legislative decisions, he often said, “I would ask, ‘Is it good law?’ I want that on my tombstone.” The record abounds with his statutory legacies that affect our daily lives: the rescue of the Social Security system in 1983; tax reform in 1986; welfare overhaul in 1988; and on and on. Given Washington’s recent ineptitude in enacting major proposals, Rostenkowski’s bipartisan accomplishments look even more impressive.

Throughout his career, he was less a partisan firebrand than an old-style dealmaker, not afraid to grab and use power. Yet he took command at a time when the political rules, both formal and informal, were changing radically. He adapted to some of the changes, if only because he had no choice. But the legislative successes that he frequently scored resulted chiefly from his knowledge and faith in the old ways.

Those techniques placed many Democrats on the defensive after the 1974 upheaval when the forced resignation of President Nixon made the nation understandably sensitive about the raw abuse of power. Rostenkowski’s affinity for dinner of steaks and gin with his macho circle of friends in noisy restaurants, his penchant for rubbing broad shoulders in receptions or on the golf course and for receiving big campaign checks from corporate honchos, and his often frosty demeanor—all those old-style qualities created a big chill with the new breed of Democrats who had taken over their party.

His career was a tale of two lives and two cities. A veteran Washington aide recalled being present once when Rostenkowski was carrying on two conversations in his’ Chicago, office—one on the telephone with Senate Finance Committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen about a high-powered Capitol Hill deal, the other in person with a 17-year-old neighborhood kid about a local job. “He never became a Washingtonian,” said Ed Derwinski, an Illinois Republican who shared two dozen years in the House with Rostenkowski. “In his earlier years, he was happier being a ward committeeman than a congressman…. His heart always stayed in Chicago.”

He seemed to nurture the disconnection, Indeed, it often seemed that Rostenkowski schemed to keep his Washington friends from knowing details of his Chicago life—and vice versa. As he commuted between O’Hare and Washington’s National Airport (always keeping his watch on Chicago time), probably no one else knew all the people and issues that filled his life at both ends of the line. That was part of his style, to be a “control freak,” according to people who worked closely with him.

“I didn’t deal much with Washington,” recalled Alderman Terry Gabinski, Rosty’s long-time top Chicago political lieutenant. Perhaps the two people who had the best view of Rostenkowski’s twin circles were his personal secretaries—Nancy Panzke in Chicago and VIrginia Fletcher in Washington. Each was a close and devoted aide to him for more than a quarter-century, though they often feuded with each other.

To the folks in Rosty’s Chicago circle, Washington’s big-picture politics seemed distant and sterile compared with the role of urban boss. To Washingtonians, who bowed to the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, minding the details of Chicago’s political machine was small-bore work. But Rostenkowski loved and understood both worlds—and, as a result, he had a more nuanced view of how politics in America really worked, for better or worse.

Throughout, Rostenkowski stayed faithful to the instructions of Mayor Richard J. Daley, his political mentor. At the start, the two of them agreed that Rostenkowski’s essential assignment was to be Chicago’s chief lobbyist in Washington. “When Dad flew to Washington, Danny was always there,” recalled Bill Daley, the current mayor’s brother and for years a close pal to Rostenkowski. “He did everything. From the logistics to telling [the mayor] who was who—Danny was at his side all the time.” (Daley’s death in December 1976, which came almost precisely at the midpoint of Rosty’s 36 years in Washington, liberated the congressman to be his own man, but the mayor’s lessons endured.)

Loyalty to the party organization was Rostenkowski’s paramount priority, something he no doubt learned from his father, ‘Joe Rusty,” who lost his long-time seat on the City Council in 1955 because he backed Daley for mayor over Ben Adamowski, a favorite with the Polish community. “It’s hard to understand now. But that was the way people succeeded then, by staying together in politics,” Bill Daley said. “Joe Rostenkowski made the ultimate sacrifice in some ways.”

During those early years, Rostenkowski mostly stuck to the nitty-gritty of building and maintaining his Democratic machine back home. In Washington, where he spent as little time as possible, he focused on delivering pork-barrel projects (such as hundreds of millions of dollars for the city’s Deep Tunnel project) and jobs (including the post of customs collector for the Port of Chicago, which he won for his father in the 1960s). But he was not actively engaged in the House’s legislative work.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s, “a lot of members did not have much of a relationship with him,” said former Speaker Tom Foley of Washington State, who at the time was close to many of the reformers. “Younger members felt he was distant and they considered him kind of gruff, muscular in his personality, and there wasn’t much to tie them to him.”

His powerful chairmanship—he took over Ways and Means in 1981—forced many members of Congress, and others who dealt with the power brokers, to pay more attention. He did not win every battle. The Reagan Administration’s initial tax- and spending-cut package, which was Chairman Rostenkowski’s first major bill, was probably his most embarrassing setback. But with Republicans presiding in the White House for most of that period, Rostenkowski found himself leading his party in bargaining over Presidential proposals and pressing national problems. And he won the approval of far more legislation than any other Democrat during those dozen years. Speakers like Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and Jim Wright often were effective in making political points on behalf of Democrats, and some committee chairmen could grab headlines. But Rostenkowski was by far the most important Democrat in shaping national policy.

Many Democrats, however, grew frustrated that his deal-cutting prowess had done little to encourage new ideas or to bolster a party that badly needed reinvigoration. “He had no policy commitment,” griped a liberal Democratic insider. “The emphasis on getting out a bill and the arm-twisting made him come up short on substance where he could have had an impact.”

Meanwhile, he grew remote from his Near Northwest Side community, which had undergone major change since the 1950s with the exodus of most Poles farther out Milwaukee Avenue. He lost interest in shaking hands with constituents, and he increasingly confined himself in meetings back home to a shrinking inner circle of long-time friends and political cronies. With no serious local political opposition and with his ever-growing responsibilities in Washington, Rostenkowski grew lax about staying in touch with local sentiments. The most dramatic evidence of that failing came during the notorious August 1989 incident when he and his driver sped away from the Copernicus Center on Milwaukee Avenue so that he could escape angry senior citizens protesting added Medicare fees, which he had helped to enact.

In Washington, too, his string of successes ran out. He couldn’t rescue Bill Clinton’s ill-fated health-care reform plan. His party suffered a humiliating electoral setback at the hands of Newt Gingrich because the public decided that the Democrats’ time—and Rosty’s, too—had run out. And, most painfully, he couldn’t get the pesky Federal prosecutors and the stern judge off his case.

The old system, which he still firmly embraces, had made major contributions to his city and the nation. But it finally had run its course. He was arrogant enough to believe that he could continue to play by the rules that prevailed when he came of age in the 1950s. Even when he was a powerful national figure who could change the tax code with a stroke of his pen, he couldn’t abandon the habits,—such as using his official House accounts to pay for personal services and gifts—that today are widely viewed as nickel-and-dime corruption.

Now the weary fighter has agreed to pay the price. He surely has second thoughts about himself and the business that was his entire professional life. But the high-wire world of politics is unforgiving to those found guilty of violating the accepted code, even if they have been singled out for offenses that others have committed with impunity. (Remember Bob Packwood?) The fact that Rostenkowski had been like a kindly uncle to both City Hall and the Democratic White House adds to the irony of his downfall. That will offer little consolation as he spends the coming months at a different kind of Federal facility—no doubt adding more contours to a face that has already been shaped by the good and the ugly.

 

Photograph: Cameron Craig – AP/Wide World Photos

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