Hard to make out the smell in Rostenkowski scandal


July 25, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Joseph "Big Joe Rusty" Rostenkowski was a Chicago alderman of the old school. He was loud and rough-edged and kept a tavern on the ground floor of his home.

He lived by the simple rules that guided Chicago politics then as now: Reward your friends, punish your enemies, and always know which is which.

Big Joe Rusty married Priscilla Dombrowski -- they lived in a large Polish enclave on the city's Northwest Side -- and they had twin daughters, Gladys and Marcia, and a son, Daniel David.

Dan was the charmer of the family, a born leader who as a child would come down to the tavern and listen to the barbershop quartets and mingle with the crowd.

When he was 10, two of his father's precinct captains were murdered and dumped in front of the Rostenkowski home, but this was not a traumatic event for young Dan. It was merely politics.

Dan, who became known as "Rosty," lives in that house to this day and is now chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Only once did he flirt with a career other than politics. He was a star athlete in high school and had a chance to play professional baseball for the Philadelphia Athletics. But his father couldn't see it.

You're never going to be Babe Ruth, Big Joe Rusty told him. You're never going to be Lou Gehrig. And if you're not going to be the best, why bother?

Today, in Congress, Dan Rostenkowski is Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined. He also is accused (though has not been indicted and says he is innocent) of embezzling about $20,000 from the House Post Office.

But the accusation has been enough to set the White House atremble. Rostenkowski is the key player in getting Bill Clinton's domestic policy through the House. Clinton's deficit reduction, health care and welfare reform packages may well hinge on Rosty's skills.

And if Rosty goes down, Bill Clinton's political future may go down with him.

So with the embezzlement accusations making front page news, Bill Clinton invited Rostenkowski to lunch at the White House last week and very publicly stood by him.

And just in case you have trouble telling the two apart, here's a tip: Rostenkowski is the one who wears a pinkie ring.

In Chicago terms, Rostenkowski is a dese-dem-and-doser. While doesn't actually say things like "dese guys" or "dem Bears" or "dose Cubbies", he comes from a neighborhood where people do.

And with one exception, Dan Rostenkowski has never been ashamed of his roots. But that exception, ironically, may prove to be his downfall.

"Never does a bird fly so high that he doesn't have to go down for a drink of water," his father told him.

"Drinking the water is back in Chicago," Rosty says today. And to this day, Rosty keeps his watch set to Chicago time.

But Dan Rostenkowski is a high-flier. He hobnobs with corporate moguls and world leaders and whoever happens to be president at the time.

The air is thin up there. And you can often forget to come back down to earth. You can often try to live beyond your means.

Once in his life, Rostenkowski did something that was out of character for a Chicago kid. When his father sent him to military school in Wisconsin, Rostenkowski changed his name to "Daniel Rosten," changing it back only when he entered politics.

It was not a great sin: He merely wanted to fit in with a different set, rub elbows with a different crowd, fly a little higher than a name ending in a vowel might have let him.

And it worked. Due to his charm, energy, and athletic prowess, he was voted most popular cadet in his senior year. He was also runner-up for most conceited.

Almost 45 years later, he was still explaining the thrill of flying high.

"I'm a national figure now, there's no question about it," he told Chicago writer Iris Krasnow in 1991. "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."

But perhaps the excitement was a little too great. And now both his friends and his enemies are trying to figure out the same thing:

If the accusations against Rosty are true, why would a man who rose so high risk everything to steal so little?

1% MONDAY: Big chisel, little chisel

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