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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

(page 5 of 5)


A 34-year-old high-school dropout and recovering alcoholic finds a buddy in Dan Rostenkowski

Thoughts on Kennedy, Daley, Obama, and more

Richard Cohen examines how history should view the complex politician

Rostenkowski is back in his Washington office, talking in a gravelly voice. Every few minutes, he yawns and coughs loudly. In order to preside over Ways and Means business today, he left his Wisconsin home near Lake Geneva at 4 a.m., drove himself to O’Hare, and caught the 6:30 a.m. flight he takes each Monday morning, When he began working in D.C. in the early sixties, Rostenkowski, Bob Michel, and Harold Collier drove back and forth in his Ford Fairlane station wagon and took turns sleeping on a mattress in the back. His wife decided early on to keep the family rooted in Chicago. “LaVerne told me, ‘Washington is a place where everyone is from someplace else. You commute,”’ says Rostenkowski. “So the kids had a Midwestern education, which I was happy about. And I didn’t have to give up any of my friends in Chicago.”

Between fueling a 40-year marriage, maintaining his Washington schedule, and keeping up with his speaking engagements, Rostenkowski took nearly 200 plane trips last year. “I’ve asked him, ‘Are you trying to kill yourself?’” says Bill Daley, Indeed, more than three decades of this fractured life would put most people under. But as he approaches senior citizenry, Rostenkowski is still locked in the perpetual motion of his youth, reaching, running-toward what?

“I don’t know what drives me,” Rostenkowski says softly. ‘’Well, I think there’s a certain amount of pride in wanting to do what’s necessary to get things done. I want to enjoy the comforts of my family, and I want to do my job here. And in order to do both these things, I guess I have to spend a little time on airplanes.”

Have you succeeded in your dual mission?

Rostenkowski continues in a near whisper. “There’s no question that I think I’ve met my public obligation. Whether I met my family obligation as well as I should have, I don’t know.” He stares in silence. “Don’t forget, LaVerne raised those children,” He pulls out a chain from his shirt with a gold four-leaf-clover pendant inscribed with his daughters’ birthdates and the date of his wedding anniversary. “LaVerne has been the hub of our family.”

His four daughters all go by the name Rosten, seeking the same anonymity their father wanted as a boy. Three are airline stewardesses; one is an interior decorator. They’ve had their share of troubles: Three are divorced; two have been arrested for cocaine possession (in one case, charges were dropped; in the other, the woman served a year in a court-ordered treatment program). The youngest one has had a succession of kidney transplants. Friends say Rostenkowski is an old-fashioned European patriarch who worries incessantly about his beautiful daughters, ages 31 through 39. They tell how he has cried late at night over martinis because he believes he has failed them.

When Rostenkowski first met LaVerne Pirkins, she had long blond hair and was wearing a purple dress, his favorite color. He says he fell in love immediately. “My wife has never used a bad word in her life. When she says ‘damn,’ the dogs get underneath the bed, the kids walk out of the room, and I pack up and leave. ” LaVerne Rostenkowski anchors her husband’s nomadic life, yet she has steadfastly refused to play politician’s wife. Her feeling is that Washington is his game. She cherishes walking down the streets of Chicago unrecognized. As her husband has been both glorified and bashed in the limelight, she has managed to lead an independent and unscrutinized life.

Rostenkowski explains that the secret to their long marriage is that they aren’t together much. When they spend the entire month of August at their Wisconsin retreat, he says she counts the days until Congress reconvenes in September. Yet it’s their future that Rostenkowski mentions first when asked if he’s going to run again. “Don’t you think I’d like to see my wife living in a nicer community? You know, in a house with a breakfast nook, where she can sit on the patio and have coffee. We don’t have any of that. Have you been to my neighborhood?”

I say that it seems to be changing.

“Changing?” he shouts. “It’s gone. Now, isn’t that unfair to my wife? She’s there and I’m here.”

So you might not run?

“I don’t know; I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I honestly don’t know.” He must make the decision by December, when candidates file petitions to be on the ballot.

“It will pretty much depend on what kind of district I get. If it’s a district that would take a lot of my effort to win, the question is, with the amount of work I do up here, am I going to have the time to go back there? Am I going to want to go back there and tell people what I’m trying to do in Washington? I don’t know that I’m willing to do that. I don’t know that I want to do that.”

* * *

Dick Simpson knows what he wants to do. He wants to put Rostenkowski out of a job. Simpson is prepared to stage an aggressive campaign that highlights what he calls Rostenkowski’s “wheeling-dealing” for friends and special-interest groups. Simpson hopes to build his campaign kitty to $100,000 by Christmas. “I won’t be just some minor candidate saying nasty things back home,” says Simpson.

Luis Gutierrez, still smarting from his 1984 campaign against Rosty, says he won’t run. “I got my ass whooped,” he recalls. “I was very naïve politically to think I could beat him. The political machinery that existed in the 32nd Ward was just something I didn’t understand. Here I spent maybe $5,000 of my own money to run against Rosty with his million dollars. He put up 100 neon signs at each polling place. He gave out sewing kits, rain hats, and combs engraved with his name in gold. He flooded the market with his name.”

Some Rostenkowski insiders are silently hoping that the chairman will wind down for his own well-being. The torturous hours, the stress—they fear burnout or worse. Even Rostenkowski got a jolt after visiting Terry Gabinski in intensive care after his heart attack. “It scared the hell out of me,” says Rostenkowski. “He was yellow.” Although he doesn’t exercise and eats steaks or pork chops nearly every day, so far Rostenkowski has escaped any serious hospital encounters. The one health-battering vice he tapers when necessary is his passion for gin.

“I drink. Yeah, I like it. But I’m not drinking now. I mean, I haven’t drank in a month. I do that when I’ve got to lose weight. Gin is so heavy it just blows you up.” Suddenly he erupts into another tirade. “But what does this have to do with your story? I don’t like making confessions about me to the public. I think it’s a total imposition to view my private life and make a judgment about it. I now have to fill out all these ethics statements and disclosure forms saying I was here on this day and I got back this way, and I’m criminally liable for this. Yeah, that’s what it has come to. It’s—it’s—it’s—I mean, I’m 63 years old! What do I want to be doing this kind of stuff for?

“You start thinking, ‘I’ve never been in the private sector; maybe that’s where I ought to be going.’ You know, I think I could bring a gift to some corporate board or labor union.”

Representative Richard Durbin laughs when asked if Rostenkowski would be happy working for someone else. “When he talks about not running and going into business,” Durbin says, “I say, ‘I can just picture you with your briefcase in your lap waiting for an appointment with the new chairman of Ways and Means,’ and then he just explodes, ‘I would never do that.’ ”

Rostenkowski didn’t seem like a man about to give it up as Congress adjourned for August. On the last day before summer recess, he lobbed a broad-based health bill on the House floor that would require all employers to provide health insurance to their workers, or pay a nine-percent Federal payroll tax. Restructuring the country’s health-care legislation is shaping up to be the key focus of the coming Congress, and Ways and Means will play the central role. And this is not a guy known to shuffle off a stage while he’s still playing the lead. Rostenkowski bolts up in his chair when he predicts what’s to come in his career. “In my 11 years as chairman, I’ve gone through every phase of the committee’s business except health. That’s next, and I think it’s going to take three years. Because this will be a big, big-ticket item.”

Sounds as if LaVerne’s new breakfast nook will have to wait.

“Oh, I love the legislature, and I’m a national figure now, there’s no question about it,” he says. “And I always get a kick out of that. You can’t walk out of a room having passed a bill that’s going to affect every individual in the United States without feeling, you know, some excitement.

“Before, I was struggling just like anybody else. Trying to stay ahead of the pack. Trying to retain my position. Now I know basically what I’m doing is right. I know that most people who disagree with me say, ‘That son of a gun, but he’s not all wrong.’ I like being me; I really do.”

Rostenkowski swaggers toward the door, and smiles over his shoulder: “Well, I would have preferred to be John Wayne.”

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