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
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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Mayor Daley’s fourth son, William, recalls that the young Rostenkowski had his father’s ear almost immediately. "Even when he wasn’t of an age or rank where he was at the head of the Illinois delegation, in my dad’s mind he was always the link to Chicago," says Daley, president of the Amalgamated Trust & Savings Bank. "Dan would come into town every Friday and brief my dad on what was happening in Washington."
Rostenkowski learned from Daley the importance of running a unified organization, demanding loyalty and trading favors, old-fashioned principles that form his core today. "Today’s Congress is made up of young, rich people who have been raised in protective and liberal environments," says lawyer/lobbyist Bill Griffin, formerly press secretary to Mayor Jane Byrne. "And I’m sure they view Danny as a man’s man in the old school—you do a favor for me, and I’ll do a favor for you. And ultimately that’s who he is."
When Daley died in 1976, it was an emancipation of sorts for Rostenkowski, who suffered from the stereotype of being Daley’s errand boy. Incorporating the experience of his elders and his own street smarts, Dan Rostenkowski tackled the power structure his way. And it worked. "Since the days of young Jack Kennedy, I’ve never seen someone grow in the Congress of the United States like Danny," says former Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O’Neill, Jr., who met Rostenkowski in the fifties after O’Neill was elected to fill John Kennedy’s congressional seat. "He carne here like an agent of the organization, a nobody in Congress; then he goes on to become an important man. Whereas in Kennedy it was a charisma that got him going, in Danny it’s a stand-up, give-it-to-you-straight style."
Relentless ambition and an ability to remain patient during the chase have also given him an edge. "I was always a politician who felt that I’ve got enough time to wait my turn," he explains. His gradual ascent started in 1965 when he replaced Thomas O’Brien, another Daley lieutenant, on the Ways and Means Committee. Three years later, he was elected chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House, which thrust him into the center of an exclusive circle of House leadership. He was only 35 at the time, but already a confidant of President Johnson’s and touted as a future Speaker. "Dan always stayed very close to the power," says Washington lobbyist Gary Hymel, who spent 16 years as a Capitol Hill administrative assistant, first to Louisiana congressman Hale Boggs, then to Speaker O’Neill. "Hale was the whip, Dan was chief of the caucus, and they sat next to each other on Ways and Means and became best friends. Danny was also among Tip’s closest friends. These big-city, Catholic-ethnic-organization-type Democrats just clicked."
His place among the players didn’t help when it came to the wrath of House majority leader Carl Albert, who was humiliated when Rostenkowski, at President Lyndon Johnson’s request, took the gavel from Albert at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and brought an unruly crowd of Vietnam War protesters under control. Elected House Speaker in 1970, Albert was thrilled when his friend Olin "Tiger" Teague, a Democrat from Texas, beat Rostenkowski in his run for a third term as Democratic Caucus chairman. It was the only election Rostenkowski had ever lost. But worse was yet to come. Rostenkowski had been working hard to make Boggs House majority leader with the understanding that Boggs would bring in his pal as whip or assistant majority leader. Boggs won, but the package deal was axed by Albert. Tip O’Neill got the whip job instead, which led eventually to majority leader, then Speaker.
The defeat left Rostenkowski convinced that his career was history. "It destroyed me," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1980. "I just wanted to crawl into a corner and die. " Yet when Rostenkowski had another chance to move toward Speaker in 1980, he chose the Ways and Means chairmanship instead. "You knew by Ronald Reagan’s governorship that he was going to try to affect the lifestyle by the economics of the tax structure," Rostenkowski says. "So I figured that if you wanted to be where the action is, you’re certainly going to be in the eye of the hurricane in Ways and Means. And if you were going to leave government, everybody in big business would certainly know who Rostenkowski was." He smiles smugly.
The Ways and Means Committee has a formidable power base, presiding over revenue legislation spanning health-care, social, and financial areas, a jurisdiction that includes all taxes, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, welfare, and international trade. Since Rostenkowski took over in 1981, the committee has saved Social Security, rewritten U.S. trade laws, and reformed the welfare system. In 1986, he pulled off his most formidable coup—Rostenkowski was the primary force in overhauling the tax code for first time in 30 years. When tax reform was hammered out, a code that had more a dozen different rates for individuals was left with only three; the top income tax rate went from 50 percent to 33 percent and six million people in lower-income brackets were relieved of having to pay any income taxes at all. The loopholes and shelters that benefited the very rich were closed, and more than $120 billion in Federal money was shifted from individual income tax to corporate income tax. The Chicago Democrat had crossed swords with Ronald Reagan and come away victorious.
"If I were smarter than I was, I wouldn’t have tried to revise the tax code because it turned out to be such a gigantic undertaking," Rostenkowski says. "As a matter of fact, I didn’t understand it for a while. I had many meetings with Ronald Reagan where he would sit there and shake his head, and I would say"—he leans over and grins—"’Mr. President, I don’t know if I’m even explaining this to you correctly.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, Jesus, we got ourselves in a hell of a mess here.’
"I grew to like Ronald Reagan. I mean, he was a—and I don’t mean this disrespectfully—he was a man with views that were very simple."
Are you like Ronald Reagan?
Rostenkowski sits upright. "Well, you know, I’m not at all complicated. I mean, when people walk out of this office they’re not scratching their heads."
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Because of the Committee’s broad jurisdictional base, the most ambitious and the brightest in the House try to elbow their way into one of the committee’s 32 seats. Those who make the final cut call Rostenkowski a perfectionist who listens, but ultimately makes his own decisions. "Danny is basically a man who likes to control things," says Illinois representative Marty Russo, a Ways and Means member since 1980. Russo is one of a handful of Rostenkowski protégés, a group that also includes Democrats Tom Downey from New York and George Miller from California. They frequently see the chairman during off hours, often at the head table that’s permanently reserved for him at Morton’s, a Washington outpost of the Chicago steak house created by his old friend Arnie Morton. When Rostenkowski calls for dinner or a show, people snap to attention. "You don’t ever dare say, ‘I’ve got something else to do,’" Russo says. ”You say, ‘I’ll be there.’ I couldn’t care less to see Rosemary Clooney, but I have, and I’ve sat through two shows of Mel Tormé with him."
During these nights, Rostenkowski is the life of the party. His dinner partners say he passes down tribal wisdom with ringer impersonations of the Presidents he has known, and tells jokes using ethnic accents. There’s only one thing he expects in return from those allowed into his private sphere: "He likes loyalty," says Russo. "Don’t give him your word if you don’t plan on keeping it because that’s the end of the ball game with him. It works both ways. Rostenkowski is, number one, the most loyal person you could ever have on your side. I mean, when you’re in trouble or when you’re on top of the world, he’s there both times with both feet."
The loyalty he both demands and offers carries over to his well-paid staff. Unlike most offices on Capitol Hill, his people tend to stick around for years—even decades. Virginia Fletcher, his administrative assistant in Washington, started with Rosty in 1963. Nancy Panzke joined him at age 16, and now 23 years later, runs his district office in Chicago. "Not to get overly soupy, but I think a lot of people who work for him really absolutely love him," says Jim Healy, a staffer for 15 years. "There’s never any doubt who’s the boss, but at the same time you develop a very strong friendship." Indeed, however cozy the relationship, there is no illusion of equality. Rostenkowski’s people never call him by his first name. He’s Boss, Mr. Chairman, or Congressman. Even 52-year-old Terry Gabinski, the alderman of his ward for 22 years who replaced him as ward committeeman in 1988, seldom calls him Dan. "He’s the boss and that’s fine with me," Gabinski says. "It’s always been fine with me to be able to say, ‘I’m with Dan Rostenkowski.’ Could it be any better than that? How do they turn me down for things at City Hall?"
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To the delegation from Illinois, Rostenkowski plays godfather to a group that includes his elders Sidney Yates and Frank Annunzio. Although Yates holds a senior seat on the weighty Appropriations Committee and Robert Michel is the House minority leader, Rostenkowski is considered the kingpin. When new Democratic members come to town, he makes sure they are well taken care of. “After I’d been here a few months, he called me aside and said pointblank, ‘Do you plan on staying here?’" recalls Illinois representative Richard Durbin, who was first elected in 1982. "I said, ‘I’m not sure; why do you ask?’ He said, ‘We need another person on the Appropriations Committee, and if you can get re-elected I’ll help you out.’ As soon as I won the next election, he engineered my appointment to the committee. So I went in to his office and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I really want to thank you.’ He I can be gruff at times, and he had that frown on his face. And he said, ‘I want you to remember one thing.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Chicago.’”
"Rostenkowski is the driving force of the Illinois delegation," Durbin adds. "I can’t picture this delegation without him." Neither can Mayor Daley or Governor Edgar, who are pressing him to run again. He is, after all, the one who carries their agenda in Washington. While Rostenkowski is writing laws that affect every taxpayer in the country, he has shamelessly wedged in items that give breaks to public works and industry back home. Not only does he help keep the money flowing for Deep Tunnel, the underground river system that flushes out Chicago’s sewers and storm overflow, but he also got a favorable match provision from the Federal Government so that it picks up some 75 percent of the tab—typically, this type of program is not federally funded. And, along with Representative Bill Lipinski and Secretary of Transportation Sam Skinner, Rostenkowski orchestrated the change in Federal law to permit local jurisdictions to tack on their own airline ticket tax, which shook loose $90 million for Chicago to build a third airport and fix up O’Hare.
Most recently, he helped push through funds for a Federal office building in the South Loop, and extracted eight million dollars in seed money for Loyola University to build a new business school. White House budget director Richard Darman charged that Rostenkowski’s Loyola grant, tucked into an obscure bill, busted the budget and will mean cuts in many domestic programs. "He’s willing to take the heat if he thinks the project will be good for Chicago," says Tom Sneeringer, his former legislative director. (Rostenkowski recently paid back Darman by holding up bills that would grant most-favored-nation trading status to several Eastern European nations, charging that these bills would also bust the budget.)
Despite crackdowns in the early 1980s on permitting tax breaks for special development projects, Rostenkowski also managed to protect dozens of Chicago projects. Some of the most visible were the expansion of Navy Pier, the North Loop Redevelopment Project, and the new White Sox stadium. All were built with tax-exempt bonds that were supposed to have been outlawed by the new tax rules. Critics were outraged at these blatant acts of favoritism. In 1988 the Philadelphia Inquirer detailed how Rostenkowski and others manipulated the tax reform into billions of dollars in tax breaks for a chosen few. The Pulitzer Prize-winning articles effectively ended the political acceptability of the directed tax provisions Rostenkowski was so skillful at slipping into law.
As early as 1982, Ted Gup of The Washington Post was taking a skeptical look at special-interest groups courting Rosty. Gup found that in a six-month period, the chairman of Ways and Means had spent at least 45 days as a guest of various corporations, trade associations, and individuals at resorts from Boca Raton to Maui. Often during these golf excursions, Rostenkowski also spoke before the host group, collecting honoraria of up to $7,500. After members’ salaries were raised to $125,000 last January, the House prohibited the acceptance of honoraria except a $2,000 stipend that must go directly to charity. Even so, Rostenkowski remains a champion of the lecture/junket circuit, in such lush getaways as Pebble Beach, California.
Before the rules changed, Rostenkowski had earned more in honoraria than anyone else in Congress—$310,000 last year. Previous House rules allowed members to keep honoraria totaling 30 percent of their congressional pay, which meant nearly $27,000 for Rostenkowski. The rest of the money he distributed to charities, including the Chicago Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, St. Stanislaus Kostka, Loyola University, the Polish National Museum, the Art Institute, and Mercy Hospital, which recently named a new wing for Rostenkowski and his wife. Having to part with all this cash makes Rosty wince. "In the past five years I’ve given over a million dollars away," he bellows. "If my father knew that, he’d turn over in his grave."
Even with the ban on honoraria, veteran Rostenkowski watchers say they don’t expect his peripatetic schedule to halt. "I think he gives two shits about the money," says Alderman Luis Gutierrez, who ran against Rostenkowski in 1984. "This is a man who gets corporate jets, limos, and lives the life of a millionaire anyway. That’s not what makes him run. It’s the power."
More often than not, the groups picking up Rostenkowski’s travel and speaking expenses have business before the Ways and Means Committee, and reformers see this relationship as a way of buying favors. They charge he bends to the will of special interest groups who hire him, such as the Tobacco Institute, Commonwealth Edison, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. "Why does someone like [former alderman] Cliff Kelley go to jail, and someone like Dan Rostenkowski, who makes some rotten tax deals, stay out?" demands Terrence Brunner, executive director of Chicago’s Better Government Association. He is referring to Kelley’s nine-month imprisonment for accepting $30,000 and a car for helping Systematic Recovery Systems obtain city collection contracts. "It’s not OK for a Cliff Kelley, but it is OK for heavy hitters like Dan Rostenkowski. Here’s a guy who accepts huge contributions from people he changes the tax code for, and the whole damn town of Washington endorses the thing; it’s the dirty little secret of the place. His answer is, ‘So what’s wrong with that?’ And because he’s’ such a fun guy to be around and because he does it with such flair, everyone laughs it off."
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Back home, not everyone is laughing. While Rosty has many die-hard fans, such as Sophie Madej, owner of the Busy Bee restaurant that dishes up the Polish dumplings he loves, and the aging Polish bastion of St. Stanislaus church, other constituents complain that he’s a stranger around the Eighth District. They are riled that they know their congressman more from the networks and Newsweek than from the community. And when he is in his office, they say they can’t get in to see him. Michelle Couturier served as a leader in the efforts to keep open the Stewart Warner plant on Diversey and Wolcott. As the liaison for a coalition of community groups and the Warner workers’ union, she thought that her congressman would certainly hear her out. Couturier found instead that "it took kicking and screaming" to get him to be responsive.
"Here we were, a small nonprofit community organization, and in order to meet with Rostenkowski we had to fly to Washington," she says. "He was never available to meet with us in Chicago. And when we got there, the whole meeting probably took ten minutes. It seemed like he just wanted to get us in and get us out. The fact of the matter is that 2,000 people lost their jobs in a factory in his district, and in my mind he ended up doing practically nothing."
Many seniors in his district who once considered him their golden boy will never forget August 1989, chasing Rostenkowski down Milwaukee Avenue. After a meeting with several members of the Copernicus Senior Center, Rostenkowski made a quick exit rather than address a larger group angry over the Ways and Means enactment of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act. The crowd, some yelling "chicken" and "Rottenkowski," tailed him to his car, One elderly woman plopped herself on the hood, forcing him to abandon the vehicle. George Stevens, 84, remembers that "all hell busted loose" that day. "We were really furious; he just pushed ahead and wouldn’t talk."
Rostenkowski maintains he tried, "I came to talk and explain the situation. They came to demonstrate and raise a ruckus. Obviously they were a lot more successful than I was." Rostenkowski’s aides defend the congressman, saying that the surtax was grossly misunderstood, which it was. Rostenkowski wrote the law in such a way that most of the middle-class seniors in the Eighth District would not be paying the extra $800 a year; it was those retired folks in Florida and everybody else in the higher income brackets who would be tapped.
So why didn’t Rostenkowski just clear himself then and there at the Copernicus Center? "He has taken to avoiding personal appearances in his district," explains a former senior aide. "He has lost his stomach for it. It’s too goddamn unpleasant to him, especially to face the bitter elderly. Most politicians don’t like it, but most suck up and do it. Somewhere along the way Dan Rostenkowski has convinced himself that he doesn’t have to do it. So what you ended up with is a boil of discontent which just popped that day."
A more serious mark on Rostenkowski’s record is his involvement in Presidential Towers, the Near West Side project developed in the early 1980s by one of his oldest friends, Daniel Shannon, and Shannon’s partners. Rostenkowski made the project possible by writing an exception to a new rule that required owners of residential buildings financed with tax-exempt bonds to set aside 20 percent of their units for lower-income residents. Without that multimillion-dollar Federal break, the solely high-rent Presidential Towers could not have been built. Allegations revealed in a 1983 Chicago Sun-Times story charged that Rostenkowski may have been more sensitive to Shannon’s needs because the developer was overseeing a blind trust for Rostenkowski that was mushrooming by tens of thousands of dollars under Shannon’s stewardship. Rostenkowski says of his part in the HUD-financed apartment complex, now in default on its loans: "I did it because I was told it would help Chicago. And it did."
Rostenkowski’s influential allies agree that his efforts in facilitating the development only demonstrate his commitment to Chicago. ”I don’t know why they’re criticizing him. All of Congress plays that way and there’s nothing wrong with it," says Mayor Daley. "Presidential Towers is a good concept that really revitalized the Near West Side."
But the taint of the association remains a burr that he can’t shake. "Presidential Towers has been his biggest albatross," says one of Rostenkowski’s Chicago advisers. "Quite frankly, he regrets being in the deal. That has been the brush that truly tarred him; allegations that not only did he do it for his friends, but also for himself." In any case, Shannon no longer manages Rostenkowski’s trust.
* * *
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."