Power Drive

FROM NOVEMBER 1991: After 33 years in Congress and facing his toughest race in decades, Dan Rostenkowski may be feeling his political mortality at last. But he’s the same fierce, engaging, conflicted man who rose from the streets of the Northwest Side to the peaks of Capitol Hill

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In the Drake room of the Drake hotel, Rostenkowski holds forth near the bar with a roomful of Fortune 500 corporate chieftains, a virtually male-only crowd who have come to hear him talk on the merits of a free-trade pact with Mexico. His morning mood has mellowed, and he is now regaling the group with a story about the President, who has recently been released from the hospital for treatment of an irregular heartbeat. Rostenkowski’s bombastic stadium voice and burly frame packed into a shiny navy-blue suit dominate the group. “So I told my friend George Bush, ‘Jesus, you’re crazy, just a crazy old man to be jogging. You’re 67 years old.’ Then I told him about my friend Terry Gabinski, my alderman, who is 52 and laid up in the hospital with a big heart attack. And he says to me, ‘But Danny, I didn’t have a heart attack.’ And I tell him, ‘Just wait, George, you will.”’

At lunch the audience of nearly 200 sits enthralled as Rostenkowski wraps up his speech. “As I see it, the idea of a unified market with a six-trillion-dollar gross national product and 362 million consumers is a very attractive one.” The applause is a long burst, and Rostenkowski is on a high when it’s over. There’s a spring to his walk, which is more like a horse’s lope, as we approach the car that will now take him to speak before a Hispanic group on the pending trade agreement with Mexico. We climb into a rusted 1982 blue Impala driven by a chunky young man he calls Mikey, his 23-year-old gofer who has been on staff since he was in grade school. They exchange grunty laughter and chopped-up grammar doused with expletives. “They liked the speech, didn’t they?” Rostenkowski says. “Oh, yeah, and those were the shakers and movers.” He chortles wryly. “But I wonder how many of those people there wouldn’t have been saying, ‘Oh, he’s just a big balloonhead,’ as opposed to listening and looking like they’re interested if I wasn’t the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. How many would still be my friends?”

He rattles off a list of his haunts as we drive west on Chicago Avenue. “I eat there at the Chop House and at Gene and Georgetti’s. I eat at Eli’s. I eat at Morton’s.” He usually orders Bombay gin straight, “with some of dem onions,” and a slab of steak cooked “Pittsburgh"—black on the outside, red on the inside. Asked about his cholesterol level, he shrugs. “I’ve never had it tested.” At the meeting with prominent Hispanic business leaders, Rostenkowski starts out with another my-good-friend-George Bush yarn, then talks candidly about reapportionment, and the possibility that the large Hispanic population on the Northwest Side will edge him out.

“You know, I have every respect in world for the Hispanics to have their own district,” he assures them. “Most of my neighbors are Hispanic. But I live where I was born, and I don’t know what they’re going to do with me. If I leave tomorrow, I will have felt that I served my country well, I’ll go out and make a lot of money. And I just say, hell, I’m ready.”

Most people in the room would probably love to see a Hispanic replace Rostenkowski, but they are still obviously smitten by the unpolished veteran who advises the President, and they tell him so. He is pumped and chatty during the 40-floor elevator ride down. “They were thrilled that I was there. You know, it’s an event. I that; I like being important. I like sharing the story of George Bush in the Cabinet room. Hey, listen, they all love it. They love to get behind the curtain. They looooooove it. When you get down there, eyeball them and say, ‘You know, this actually happened,’ even members of Congress, you tell them what you did with Jack Kennedy, what you did with Lyndon Johnson, and they just sit there wide-eyed. You are history. It’s fantastic.”

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There are more than 60 years of politics packed into Daniel David Rostenkowski, the third child—after twin sisters—of Big Joe Rusty and Priscilla Dombrowski. (In their prime, his sisters, Gladys and Marcia, performed as Nani and Tani, Hawaiian-style singers and dancers. Now in their early 70s, the reclusive twins, who never married, live in the Rostenkowski family home on Noble and are known to dress alike.) Old-timers remember the patriarch as smaller than his son, but louder and rougher around the edges, part of the Paddy Bauler–Parky Cullerton pack. Dan Rostenkowski’s mother was quiet and gentle, a sharp card player and excellent cook whose pineapple French toast dusted with powdered sugar is remembered to this day. As the alderman’s boy, Rostenkowski was early on steeped in both the glamour and the sordidness of a politician’s life—he was ten when two of his father’s precinct captains were murdered and their bodies dumped in a car parked in front of his house. In a tavern on the ground floor of their house, the tall and skinny preteen Dan became adept at working and charming a crowd.

“My father would bring in barbershop harmony singers, and Dan would hear them from upstairs, then go down in the tavern and mingle with the older crowd,” recalls Jim Archibald, son of the proprietor. ‘’He was already on his way to becoming a politician. He was always the leader, even when he was 11 and 12. It was a tough neighborhood, and his gang of friends then was pretty tough, but he wasn’t a wild kid; he had more common sense than most.”

Joe Rostenkowski wanted his son to keep on the straight and narrow, so he sent him to St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. To establish his own identity away from his father’s looming reputation, he enrolled at St. John’s as Daniel Rosten. (He changed it back when entered politics.) This abridged surname also cushioned him from the Polack jokes that had started to circulate. The physical prowess he exhibited at St.

Stanislaus Kostka elementary school flourished into a legacy at St. John’s-he won unprecedented 14 letters in baseball, football, basketball, and track, and he rose through the ranks to become cadet captain, the military-school equivalent of company commanding officer in the army. His grades were average, but his status was superstar. In his senior year he was voted best athlete, most popular cadet, and runner-up as most conceited.

The strict discipline that defined his experience at St. John’s left a profound effect on Rostenkowski’s adult personality. He is fastidious about his clothes, meticulous about his environment, programmed by routine, and always on time. On the floor of his office closet, half a dozen pairs of shoes are lined up heel to heel; sweaters and jackets hang perfectly in a row. He insists that his blotter be parallel to the edge of his desk, that his briefcase be tidy and pruned of superfluous papers. He wakes before dawn, charges into the office, and runs full tilt until he hits the bed at night. In the morning, his energy is not kicked in by caffeine; he drinks Sanka, which he mixes himself in a red mug that he cleans to a shine between uses.

Afterhigh school, Rostenkowski was sent to prewar Korea, where his infantry was based on the 38th parallel along the beaches of the Sea of Japan. He spent his days swimming and honing his baseball skills. When he returned to Chicago following a bloodless tour of duty, Rostenkowski enrolled at Loyola University as a part-time student and worked at the Chicago Park District. He never accumulated enough credit hours to graduate, but did jump at the chance to showcase his pitching arm in an arena much bigger than the St. John’s ballpark. The Philadelphia Athletics were interested in Rostenkowski, but his father had other ideas.

Joe Rostenkowski told him that he’d never be another Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. And if he couldn’t be the best, why do it at all? Besides, his mother was critically ill with cancer, and he was needed at home. So at the age of 24, the year after his mother died, Rostenkowski entered a field his dad thought held more promise. He became the youngest member of the Illinois state legislature. By 1954, two years later, he was elected to the state senate. When an ailing Thomas Gordon, the Democratic congressman for the Eighth District for 18 years, decided to quit politics in 1958, Rostenkowski moved in, buoyed by Mayor Daley’s support. At 30, he became the youngest member of the 86th Congress (the average age of his Illinois delegation was 72) and the mayor’s man in Washington.

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