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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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By 2006, Cook found himself not just an occasional foil passing through Rostenkowski’s office on his way to the laundry room but a regular dinner companion. The almost daily conversations were the highlight of his week. And though he couldn’t be certain, Cook thought they brightened Rostenkowski’s, too.

The quirky, blooming friendship amused LaVerne. She had grown fond of Cook, and though Rostenkowski certainly had a wide circle of friends with whom he still enjoyed regular lunches and dinners, she delighted in seeing that he had taken a shine to this unlikely new person in his life.

In time, the recovering drunk and the fallen chairman became regulars at Rostenkowski’s Ridgemoor Country Club and at Chicago standbys such as Carson’s. Rosty almost always picked up the tab, but thanking him could be tricky. “Don’t give me that shit,” he grouched one night. Later, in a far softer voice, he said, “Good night, Marty.”

Occasionally, Cook tried to return the favor. Once, he took his new friend to Superdawg. To Cook’s delight, Rostenkowski gobbled two hot dogs with everything. He then shocked Cook with the first truly kind words he’d heard from the man. “Marty,” he said, “you’re making my twilight years very enjoyable.”

Another time, Cook wanted to take Rostenkowski to a nice place in Edison Park. In light of the trouble he’d had as a gambling addict, Cook no longer used credit, so he had to stop and cash a check on the way. When he got back in the car, Rostenkowski shot him a sidelong glance, then shook his head. “I can’t believe my life has come to this,” he said. “I was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, for Christ’s sake, and I’m with a guy that has to cash a check to pay for dinner.”

To Cook, the benefits of the relationship were obvious. For starters, when he was out to lunch or dinner with Rostenkowski, when the two were chewing over the day’s news, the idea of drinking never crossed his mind. Whether Rostenkowski meant to or not, he was helping Cook stay sober.

And Rosty was also injecting him with confidence. Cook had heard it said that an alcoholic stops maturing at the age he starts drinking. If that were true, then he was an 18-year-old trapped in the body of a 30-something. The initial call he’d placed to Rostenkowski had been one of the few times he had faced up to a simple life challenge.

Now, in ways great and small, he was learning from Rostenkowski what it meant to be an adult. There were practical things: how to develop a filing system, how to handle people on the phone. (Get the name. Write it down. Spell it correctly. Call the person by name as you begin to speak.) There were broader lessons, such as the importance of standing up for yourself. “Don’t be a mollycoddle!” Rostenkowski told him. “Take control of the situation. You gotta be a prick sometimes!”

Cook learned the importance of following through, a lesson related in parable form with a Rosty twist: “There were two staffers—one in D.C. and one in Chicago,” Rostenkowski told him one day. “The guy in Chicago would make a request. If the guy in D.C. wasn’t responsive, Chicago would tell him, ‘Get off your ass and find me the answer, because you don’t see these people. I do!’”

When Cook decided to take political science classes at DePaul, Rostenkowski not only wrote a letter of recommendation to help get Cook in the school but agreed to be his professional mentor. And Rosty nodded approvingly when Cook took up vigorous exercise and by 2007 dropped his weight to around 180 pounds.

For Cook, the life lessons were invaluable. He earned his bachelor’s degree from DePaul in 2007, and having started as “essentially a box mover” in the CAPS program, he slowly worked his way up to a position in community relations, speaking to groups about the benefits of working with the Chicago Police Department. (In a nice coincidence, the CAPS program was born out of the 1993 crime bill that Rostenkowski helped pass.)

It wasn’t clear to Cook, however, what Rostenkowski got out of the relationship. Cook would occasionally run errands—pick up Rostenkowski, take him around town, drive LaVerne to Costco. He tried to teach Rostenkowski how to e-mail, an exercise in futility that left Rostenkowski cursing and Cook shaking with laughter. One time, Rostenkowski invited Cook to the inner sanctum—the family’s sprawling upstairs living quarters—then asked him to bleed the radiators. Cook didn’t have the faintest idea what he was doing, but Rostenkowski seemed to approve. “See how much I’m teaching you?” he kidded.

As he regained his confidence, Cook also gave as good as he got. “Don’t get cute,” Rostenkowski would say when Cook would volley a snappy riposte. But as to why his landlord was willing to help him so much, Cook couldn’t yet figure.

* * *

By 2007, the two had become an unofficial odd couple, complete with running gags worthy of a sitcom. One point of conflict, for example, was Cook’s smoking. Rostenkowski hated cigarettes and constantly badgered Cook to quit his two-pack-a-day habit. When needling failed, the old dealmaker made a proposal: If Cook would quit, Rostenkowski would refrain from increasing the rent. Not satisfied with a handshake, Rostenkowski told Cook to draw up a contract. Titled “An Agreement of Gentlemen: The 2007 Noble Clean Air Pact,” the contract stipulated that “the use of tobacco products, including pipes and cigars, by Marty Cook, on or after August 1, 2007, will result in an immediate and permanent rental increase to $750 a month. Mr. Rostenkowski reserves the right to reduce rental fees based on Mr. Cook’s adherence to the agreement.”

Cook broke the agreement within a week. The bust came while Rostenkowski was visiting the family’s Wisconsin retreat. “I’m sitting up here in Wisconsin,” Rostenkowski told Cook in a phone call, “and I’m thinking about the fact that you’ve started to smoke again and that I can’t believe how stupid you are.”

In time, Rostenkowski relented on another front and let Cook keep Bailey, the golden retriever, in the apartment. The almost inconceivable bending of the rules was promptly rewarded when Bailey, frightened by a thunderstorm, soiled the great man’s office. In the end, however, Bailey won over Rostenkowski and came to be regarded as the unofficial mascot of Noble Street.

* * *

One day in the fall of 2007, Cook woke up with a terrible feeling in his gut. Since his gastric bypass in 2003, he’d had to have other surgeries to repair complications. Now something bad was happening. He needed help. The logical choice would be to call Rostenkowski, but . . . could he really ask the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to take him to the hospital? What if he wasn’t really that sick? They had become friends—of sorts—but they weren’t that close, were they?

Instead, Cook drove himself to the emergency room. Once there, an intake nurse seized him by the arm and rushed him inside. When Cook awoke from surgery, the doctor told him he’d had a perforated ulcer. He’d been lucky. Another couple of hours and he would have been dead.

While Cook was recovering, Rostenkowski gave him an earful. “Jesus Christ!” he bellowed. “Why didn’t you call me! Are you out of your mind?” Cook could only apologize and laugh. After a week in the hospital—with Rostenkowski calling every day to check on him—Cook recovered. Rostenkowski volunteered to take him home, but he got lost trying to find the hospital. “You screwed me up!” he roared through Cook’s cell phone in a voice loud enough to be heard by a nurse across the room.

“Oh my God, is that your dad?” she asked. “I think he needs anger management.” Cook just laughed. The outburst was Rosty being Rosty.

But bad news was to follow. In November, Bailey was diagnosed with cancer. Rosty, in a sad and serious voice, said gently, “Don’t let that dog suffer, Marty.” Cook agreed. Two days before Thanksgiving, he had Bailey put down.

Around this time, Cook learned of more devastating news: Stacy had long suffered with kidney problems and was in need of a transplant. Cook’s brother Dennis was a match and eager to help. But before the operation could be scheduled, doctors discovered that Stacy had late-stage cancer.

Cook provided as much help and support as he could. One raw day in December 2007, he drove Rostenkowski and LaVerne to Rush University Medical Center to see Stacy. When Rostenkowski returned home, he collapsed into a chair. “She’s like a skeleton,” he told Cook. “She’s shaking from the medication.”

Stacy died on Christmas Eve. Her husband, Bob, asked Cook to be a pallbearer. The thought never occurred to Cook to tell Rostenkowski—the grieving father had enough on his mind. When he found out, he was livid—angrier, in fact, than Cook had ever seen him. “You are lower than whale shit,” he seethed. “There’s rocks and below that there’s sand and below that there’s whale shit. Goddammit, we spend all these days together like Frick and Frack, and you don’t tell me you’re going to be carrying my daughter?” Cook could only hang his head. Rostenkowski glared at him and spoke the last words he would say on the subject—the last truly cross words Cook would ever hear from him: “Don’t keep secrets from me.”

* * *

When Cook’s mother became gravely ill in 2008, he moved out of the Noble Street apartment and back home. She died in July, and Rostenkowski was the first person at the wake.

Despite his sadness at losing his mother, Cook marveled at the dramatic changes for the better in his life. He had lost 150 pounds. He’d gone from a high-school dropout to a college graduate. From barely being able to carry his bulk to the corner, he was now a runner who finished the Chicago Marathon. His finances had improved to the point that he was able to secure a mortgage and buy a condo. At work, he brimmed with confidence, but more than that, he approached his job with an entirely new attitude: Instead of what he could get from work, he tried to think of what he could give. He’d made new friends and mended fences with old. And he had spent four of the most extraordinary years of his life getting to know a person he considered a great man.

In the months that followed, Cook still saw his friend. Occasionally he would help Rostenkowski pack for weekends at the lake. “You know, when I was young and didn’t need the help, I had a dozen staffers lining up to do this,” Rostenkowski told him one day. “Now it’s just you.”

By then, Rosty had come to entrust his private papers to Cook, asking him to put them in order to be donated eventually to Loyola. To this day, Cook drops in at Noble Street to check up on the place, gather the mail, answer calls.

Where Cook had once feared Rostenkowski, he now looked on him warmly—not so much as a friend, but as a father figure. Cook still deeply regretted that his own father had not lived to see him flourish. But he was grateful to have a surrogate who could share in his redemption.

And he wondered: Rostenkowski had never said it, and perhaps it was presumptuous to think it, but the former congressman had never had a son. Maybe that’s what Rostenkowski got out of their relationship. At the very least, there was a commonality, a silent understanding, between the two. Each had fallen in his own way. And each had found a way to stand back up.

About a year ago, Cook learned that Rostenkowski was sick. His onetime landlord had started to have dizzy spells but didn’t talk much about why. Last summer, Rostenkowski took another of his trips to Wisconsin. This time he stayed. The diagnosis was lung cancer, and the prognosis is bleak.

On a visit to the lake home last fall, Cook felt for a moment as if it were old times. The two traded jabs. When Cook’s brother Jack, who was also there, gave his sibling a hard time, Rostenkowski rose to his friend’s defense, launching a fusillade that made Cook laugh.

As he was preparing to leave, Cook asked Rostenkowski how he was doing. He looked at Cook and rasped, “There are good days and there are bad days, Marty.” It was the most sincere, the most vulnerable, Cook had ever seen his friend. Without thinking, Cook touched Rostenkowski on the shoulder, an act of intimacy that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Like a son to a father, he simply said, “Hang in there, Mr. R.” In the past, his friend almost certainly would have deflected the display of concern, dismissed it with a wisecrack, a sardonic barb. In this moment, the old chairman looked up and nodded.

 

A NOTE ON SOURCES

The dialogue and scenes in this story are based on the recollections and journals of Marty Cook but were checked for tone, context, and accuracy against the memories of several key characters, including Dan Rostenkowski.

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