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The powerful chairman in his plush Washington office. For more photos, launch the gallery »
“Whaddaya doing here?” Dan Rostenkowski’s eyes are slits of blue ice, his forehead scrunched and menacing, his mouth a bulldog scowl. “If you’re here to see me, you’re wasting your time. You’re not on my schedule.” The voice is raw and enormous, an echo of the six-foot-two, 240-pound man. Weekly trips to Chicago usually soothe the combustible Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which controls a trillion and a half dollars in Federal tax, trade, and health-care revenues. But this Friday morning in his Eighth District office on Damen near Fullerton, Rostenkowski, a U.S. representative from Illinois for 33 years, is steaming.
It’s been a brutal few days. Tonight is the wake for Cook County Circuit Court judge Robert Sulski, the best man at Rostenkowski’s 1951 wedding and godfather to his oldest daughter. And Terry Gabinski, the local alderman Rostenkowski has groomed for years, is hooked up to life support at Northwestern Hospital after a massive heart attack. This grisly news comes after a hellish week squaring off with the ‘’blow-dries'’—as he calls the new breed in Congress—over a pending trade agreement with Mexico. Frustration with the job and thoughts of his own mortality are gnawing at Rosty’s gut—he’s 63, Gabinski is 52, Sulski was 69. As if this weren’t enough, O’Hare was socked in with thunderstorms last night, and his plane was stalled on the runway for two and a half hours. Now he must face a reporter. “You guys are a mean operation,” he snarls.
He’s reminded that this interview has been set for two weeks. Rostenkowski glares. He’s standing in his size 13 ½ D shoes, I’m sitting, and it’s scary. Eventually his flinty eyes thaw, and he leads me into his office carpeted in bright red shag, past a couple of fake-wood end tables and a mustard-color velour sofa, then enthrones himself behind a carved oak desk, a gift from his father, alderman Big Joe Rusty. On his finger as big as a Polish sausage he wears a silver and sapphire pinky ring. He appears flash frozen in time, the hulking Chicago machine man, the last of a dying breed, surrounded by 1960s furniture and two generations of family memorabilia. There’s the front page of a Chicago Daily Tribune heralding “Harding by Millions,” a black-and-white photo of Harry Truman and Joe Rostenkowski, a picture of Dan Rostenkowski—lean in those days—flanked by the late Richard J. Daley and Lyndon Johnson. A flickering red-neon sign dangling from the ceiling reads DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: YOUR VOICE IN WASHINGTON.
Some 600 miles from the Northwest Side he represents, in the Rayburn Building, a block from the Capitol, Rostenkowski occupies another office on top of another world. Hanging in that plush corner suite with its green-leather couch are photos of Rostenkowski with Queen Elizabeth, General Norman Schwarzkopf, and Pope John Paul II, and many of him with his good friend George Bush—golfing with their wives, lunching at the White House, hashing out figures at a budget meeting. The two have been tight since the mid-1960s, when they served together on Ways and Means.
After more than three decades on the rise, Rostenkowski has become the most powerful chairman of the most powerful committee in Congress, a boss of bosses. The just-elected President Bush couldn’t wait to show off to his buddy once he moved into the White House. “He called and said, ‘Ya gotta come down here,’” Rostenkowski recalls. “I was having lunch with [Secretary of the Treasury] Nick Brady, so we proceed down to the White House, and walk into the Oval Office. John Sununu was in there, and the President says, ‘John, Nick, could you leave me alone with the chairman, please?’ So they got up and walked out the door. And the President just looked at me for a minute or two; then he says"—Rostenkowski is shouting like a kid—” ‘Jesus Christ, Danny! Can ya believe I’m President of the United States?’”
Even with his standing on the Hill’s “A” list, Rostenkowski refuses to become a Washingtonian. He keeps his watch on Chicago time, and while most politicians of his stature are settled into estates wedged above the Potomac River, Rostenkowski’s primary residence is his red-brick boyhood home built by his Polish grandfather at the corner of Noble and Evergreen on the Northwest Side. Across the street, the once-majestic Pulaski Park he played in as a child now is still the life line of the community, but now drugs and gangs are part of that life. A line of homeless men waiting for food curls out the side door of the adjacent St. Stanislaus Kostka, the 19th-century basilica-style church where Rostenkowski was baptized, two of his daughters were married, and his parents’ funerals were held. A white vending truck hawking its fruits and vegetables with Spanish signs is parked in front of his house. The oldest Polish settlement in the city is nearly half Hispanic today, but this is where Rostenkowski’s heart remains.
‘’You know, Midwesterners are kinda deep rooted,” he whispers hoarsely. “My dad used to have a saying: Never does a bird fly so high that he doesn’t have to go down for a drink of water.” He pauses and stares blankly. “Drinking the water is back in Chicago. Still my base cadre of friends is here.” He boasts that in 33 years, he has spent fewer than two dozen weekends in Washington. During the days that he is there, he lives near Capitol Hill in a co-op near Fort McNair army base furnished with items discarded by his wife, LaVerne. He calls the place “the junkyard,” and during a LaVerne’s rare visits, they stay at a hotel.
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The story of Dan Rostenkowski is a tale of two cities—of Chicago, the hometown he loves, and of Washington, where he has achieved his desire for celebrity and national power. More than at any other point in his 33 years in Congress, this duality in his life could be a threat to his political future. Despite his emergence as America’s Tax Man, some political insiders detect a softening in his local support. He may be a working-class hero to his Ivy League peers in Washington, but to some of his working-class neighbors he’s an arrogant figurehead, an inconsequential cog in Chicago politics. “Since Rostenkowski is largely absent from the Chicago scene day by day, he doesn’t have the kind of status that he does in Washington,” says David Axelrod, a local political consultant. “An alderman gets more TV time in Chicago than a congressman does, even if he happens to be chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.”
The fact that Rostenkowski has pried loose millions of dollars for Chicago doesn’t impress everybody in the 32nd Ward. Some people complain that the mighty chairman of Ways and Means is rarely around the Northwest Side. Community and local labor leaders maintain that he’s cozy with big business downtown and out of touch with his blue-collar neighborhoods.
University of Illinois political science professor and former independent alderman Dick Simpson is trying to capitalize on the discontent with the announcement that he wants to unseat Rosty, focusing on what he says is the congressman’s “long history of being controlled by PAC money” and swinging deals for friends. Simpson’s challenge, along with the reapportionment of Illinois’s congressional districts that will place Rostenkowski in largely new turf, means the chairman could face his toughest race yet. Staff members say the plan is to use as much as necessary of his million-dollar-plus campaign war chest to ensure victory next year. Although Rostenkowski has yet to announce that he will run, during our many hours of conversation he indicated that he loved the job and wasn’t ready to leave it—even though stepping down would entitle him to keep that sizable campaign kitty.
Few would bet against him cleaning up at the polls. He has weathered rough times before. Headlines and newscasts have blared Rostenkowski’s indiscretions: Having his license revoked for drunk driving after his 40th high-school reunion in Wisconsin, partying in Barbados on lobbyists’ money, sprinting away from a group of angry older constituents who wanted to confront him over a Social Security surtax. Perhaps the most troublesome of all is his cloudy link to Presidential Towers, the West Loop project he expedited with a tax break for developer friends.
To spend time with Rostenkowski and hear his cussing and bluster, you might think he was just a Chicago street kid whose insights never got beyond the neighborhood. But don’t be fooled. When he went to Washington at the age of 30, he was considered an agent of City Hall who got his orders from Mayor Daley. Over the decades he has become a Washington elder statesman who has acquired the smarts to match his braggadocio. So far, Rostenkowski is one house divided that’s managed to stand.
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Photography: Linda L. Creighton