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An Unlikely Friendship with Dan Rostenkowski

A FRIENDSHIP IN WINTER: How a 34-year-old high-school dropout and recovering alcoholic found inspiration and a buddy in the irascible, imperious Dan Rostenkowski, the fallen political giant

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Dan Rostenkowski, Stacy Rosen-McDarrah, and Marty Cook in
1996
Rostenkowski, Stacy Rosten-McDarrah, and Cook in 1996. For more photos, launch the gallery »

 

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To reach the basement laundry room of his new digs, Cook had to pass through Rostenkowski’s office, where the former chairman would invariably be hunched over a letter or barking into a phone, handset cradled between shoulder and ear. “How ya doing?” was the most Cook felt comfortable venturing in those days, a verbal gambit that most often merited either an irritated look or an unwelcoming “Fine.”

Okay by Cook. He may have made it through rehab, but he was hardly feeling like a hail-fellow. He had his job (after a leave of absence, he’d been welcomed back to his staff assistant’s position with the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, the so-called CAPS program), but in just about every other way, he remained deeply unsure of himself. He’d promised Rostenkowski that he was through drinking, but he’d said that a hundred times before—to himself and others. Was he really? In the evenings, he paced his tiny room, praying the answer was yes.

One day, while reading the newspaper, Cook stumbled on a review of The Fog of War, a movie about Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense who became famous, if not infamous, for his role in the Vietnam War. Cook had always been a political science and history buff, and passing through Rostenkowski’s office that afternoon, he ventured a comment about the movie, knowing that Rostenkowski had been in Washington as the unpopular war unfolded.

“That son of a bitch!” Rostenkowski exploded. “McNamara lied to the American people! He lied to me!” After a profanity-laced rant peppered with references to the first Mayor Daley, President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara, and others, Rostenkowski cooled down, but not before casting a sly glance at Cook:

“McNamara—he’s one of your kind”—Irish.

Cook wasn’t sure if he was being insulted or teased. In another life he would have traded a barb of his own. He let the comment slide, but he took note. He was sure there was an opening there, a fissure in the ice.

* * *

He was right. A few weeks later, Rostenkowski and his wife, LaVerne, were watching TV when Cook brought up his laundry. Rostenkowski commented on how neatly Cook folded his clothes. “What do you do for a living?” Rostenkowski asked. Cook told him. “Well, you should consider a career in the Laundromat business.”

Then one Saturday morning, a storm blew through. The heavy winds shattered a plate glass window and sent an air conditioner tumbling from the third floor. As he was about to go for a run, Cook stepped outside to find Rostenkowski standing in the street, the old chairman having apparently dashed out to survey the damage. The sight saddened and touched him. Cook had never seen Rostenkowski look so helpless. Cook pitched in with the air conditioner, then joined in sweeping up the glass. He got Rostenkowski a cup of coffee, and the two of them sat on the stoop, talking for the first time as more than tenant and landlord.

In time, Cook found himself a student to Rostenkowski’s wide-ranging, profane insider’s take on the events of the day, standing spellbound as the old pol held court like a combination college professor and color commentator. “You should listen to that guy,” Rostenkowski would say as Cook nodded. “He knows what he’s talking about.” Or “That guy’s full of shit. He’s never done a thing in his life. I wouldn’t believe a word he says.”

Despite the thaw, Cook could tell that Rostenkowski still wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. The famous landlord always seemed slightly irritated and skeptical, as if waiting for Cook to screw up.

When Cook was forced to ask whether he could split the rent in two installments—a consequence of his still-troubled finances—Rostenkowski bellowed, “WHAT? This is VERY unusual.” After some more grumbling, he acceded. “But I don’t want to mess with the paperwork.” Cook retreated to his room, slightly shaken, but glad he’d asked. Rostenkowski probably was waiting for him to screw up. Who knew? One thing Cook did know. There was no way he was going to give this guy the satisfaction of seeing him relapse.

* * *

About a month after Cook had taken up residence at Noble Street, his father died. Though LaVerne and the couple’s four daughters attended the wake, Rostenkowski stayed home. Cook understood. LaVerne and the girls knew Cook far better than Rostenkowski. The passing of his father dealt Cook another blow. He hated that the old man would not be around to see him get his life back on track. More than that, he needed his father’s steady presence now more than ever. He had friends, but it wasn’t the same.

The youngest of six children, Cook grew up “the typical funny fat kid” in Edgebrook, fighting for attention in a household filled with wisecrackers. His brothers, he recalls, were known to be especially mischievous. His mother had a “great sense of humor, a razor wit, and knew how to tell a story.” She could also “tell a phony from a mile away.”

His father, “more quiet and sarcastic,” worked as an electrician for the City of Chicago by day and at the old Comiskey Park at night. “My dad and I would often discuss affairs of the day, sports, politics,” Cook remembers. “He would listen as I would bitch and tell stories about work.”

Cook says he didn’t take his first drink until he was 18, and only then after friends goaded him. “I sometimes laugh about it today,” he says, “but the very same people who begged me to start drinking were, years later, the same people begging me to stop.

“I put my parents through hell,” he adds. “The good news is that my dad saw me start to lose weight and, for a couple of months, be sober. I just wish he had had longer with the better person I was becoming.”

* * *

As weeks in the Rostenkowski apartment stretched into months, then a year, Cook and his landlord struck up . . . well, if not exactly a friendship, then an agreeable détente.

Meanwhile, Cook dug a little more into the life of the man who, oddly, was assuming a larger and larger role in his thoughts. He had known of Rostenkowski, of course—through Stacy, through history books, and through the news. Like many people, he had heard first about the good and in later years about the bad.

The more he learned, the more he came to admire. Poking around Rostenkowski’s papers, Cook was astonished at how much the former chairman had accomplished: securing funding to turn Navy Pier into the showpiece tourist attraction it is today; helping to bring the city $32 million to expand the CTA Blue Line from the Loop to O’Hare; pushing through $450 million to repave and expand the Kennedy Expressway; securing a $150 million bond authority for the construction of U.S. Cellular Field when the White Sox were threatening to move to Florida.

Cook also had heard the allegations that Rostenkowski had kept “ghost” employees, that he had used congressional funds to buy gifts for friends, that he had traded in stamps for cash at the House post office. He knew of Rosty’s guilty pleas to two counts of mail fraud and about his stretch in federal prison. And he knew of Rosty’s defense: that he was the victim of ruthlessly ambitious prosecutors out to take a big scalp; that the rules he’d supposedly violated had changed in midgame.

Whatever the nuances of his landlord’s fall—and he certainly sided with Rostenkowski—it struck Cook as curious that for all the man had done, not a single building, highway, or civic institution bore his name. One day, he made the mistake of asking about it: “How come you don’t just ask some of your friends to get a building named after you?”

“What? Who would be crazy enough to introduce that resolution?” Rostenkowski said. “Once you are out, you’re out. There is nothing more useless than a politician without an office.”

“Yeah, but you are Dan Rostenkowski! You did so much for this city and these politicians.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Cook said he might look into coming up with a plan.

Rostenkowski grew increasingly annoyed and then exploded. “Drop it!” he shouted. “Drop it! It’s not going to happen!”

* * *

Photograph: Courtesy of Marty Cook

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