A mother's murdered son helps Clinton rescue Rosty

March 02, 1994|By ROGER SIMON C

CHICAGO -- Carol Ridley did not know she was mere window-dressing when she left her home on the South Side of Chicago Monday to go and meet the president of the United States.

Snow was falling from a leaden sky, and traffic seemed as frozen as the dirty gray drifts that lined the streets.

It was an agonizing trip, inching along for 90 minutes until she got to the Northwest Side, where the storefronts had names like "Szymanski's Deli" and the light poles had signs that said "Vote Rostenkowski."

This was the home of Danny Rostenkowski -- Rosty -- chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful men in America.

Under criminal investigation for 19 months, facing a primary election in less than two weeks, he still commands what Chicagoans respect most: clout.

Enough clout to make the president fly in to kiss his ring.

None of which touches the life of Carol Ridley.

"My son," she said, "Reynald. He was murdered two years ago. He was shot in the head and murdered by his friend."

She stood in the hallway of the brand new gymnasium at Wright Junior College, a fortress-like structure built with the help -- of course -- of Danny Rostenkowski.

She does not really care if Rosty wins or loses on March 15. But if politics was not essential to Carol Ridley this day, Carol Ridley was essential to politics.

Since it is not seemly for a sitting president to fly out and campaign for a potential felon, Clinton needed an excuse to come to Rosty's district. Some camouflage. Some window dressing.

Thus it was decided that before Clinton mounted the stage with Rosty in the junior college gymnasium, the president would chair a "round-table" discussion on crime in a small room near the gym. Just to make everything look kosher.

So the White House made some calls and collected some names and Carol Ridley was summoned forth.

And now she stood in her brown cloth coat in the hallway outside the gym, as TV technicians and Chicago pols and the national press corps swirled around her as if she did not exist.

"Reynald was 22 when he was murdered by his friend," she said. "His friend was 22, too. They had been friends since they were 12."

But they argued one hot June day, and the friend got a gun and shot Reynald dead.

"It's the way that arguments are settled today," Carol Ridley said. "Kids don't argue anymore. They just go for a gun. In the old days, at worst, my son and his friend would have settled this with their fists. But this is today. So instead it got settled with a gun."

Reynald's friend and murderer was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

"And when he was sentenced, he told the judge that he dreamed about my son constantly," Carol Ridley said. "He told the judge: 'He was my best friend. I miss him totally.' And I believe him. I believe him. And so now my son is dead, and this young man's life is ruined, too."

A presidential aide stepped up to Carol Ridley and said she could go in now. All the cameras were ready.

The table for the round-table discussion was actually round, and Carol Ridley sat across from Bill Clinton and next to Dan Rostenkowski. Carol Ridley made a few comments about how we need to get guns off the streets. Then Rostenkowski said a few words, but not many.

"Maybe he was preoccupied," Carol Ridley said later. "Maybe he had other things on his mind."

Like grand juries, for instance. But Clinton listened intently and said all the right things before going into the auditorium where he told a roaring crowd how the country needed Danny Rostenkowski in Congress.

Carol Ridley pulled her brown coat back on and prepared to fight the traffic back south.

"I am raising Reynald's son, Reynald Jr.," she said. "He was 5 months old when his father was killed, and now he is 2. I won't let him play on the porch. I won't let him play outside. It's too dangerous.

"I don't know how to tell him about his father. I do not want him to grow up bitter. But maybe the president will make a difference. Maybe. I want to believe that. He seemed like he cared, didn't he?"

Yes, he seemed like he cared.

Which is what presidents have become very, very good at.

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