CHICAGO -- "Money," Roman Pucinski is saying as Dan Rostenkowski takes the stage. "It's about money."
Pucinski should know. He and Rostenkowski were both elected to Congress from Chicago in 1958. While Rosty stayed to become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Pucinski returned home after 14 years to serve as an alderman, a seat he held until 1991.
Now, at age 74, his voice reduced to a whisper, he still helps out a friend in need, he still serves The Machine.
This is the Democratic Machine whose obituary has been written by the media for decades but which still manages to return people like Dan Rostenkowski to Congress.
This time, however, Rostenkowski, who faces a primary election on March 15, has not only been subjected to a 19-month criminal investigation, but has had his district boundaries changed to include Chicago's liberal, upper-crust Lakefront, an area thought be hostile to a Machine guy like Rosty.
Pucinski laughs a wheezy little laugh. "These lakefront people, they have money in the market," he says. "And they want to know what could happen to it. They want Rosty to stay in Congress and watch it for them. You'll see. It's about money."
Ron Gidwitz has money. He lives on the lakefront in the poshest part of Lincoln Park. He is a liberal Republican. And he should, if politics were neat and orderly, been for anybody but Rosty.
But Gidwitz is supporting him. "I am hosting a coffee for him at my place next week," he says. "Just to introduce him to the other people in the neighborhood."
Gidwitz may be a liberal, but he is also head of Helene Curtis, the giant cosmetics firm. And he understands a man who understands money.
"Dan Rostenkowski," Gidwitz says, "represents what's best about Chicago."
And what is that? I ask.
Gidwitz pauses. "He got us $35 million to help reroute Lake Shore Drive," he says.
Money. Even college presidents understand it.
Raymond LeSevour, president of Wright Junior College, where Bill Clinton spoke on Monday, told the audience how the college had needed a new "environmental technology" curriculum.
"Coming up with the program was easy," LeSevour said. "But where do we get the money?"
Where? Where else?
"I went to Congressman Rostenkowski!" LeSevour said. "And we received the funds! Several million dollars!"
Which is what education is all about, isn't it?
Bill Clinton understands the value of money. He certainly understands the value of the money that Rostenkowski's committee controls, especially the money that will fund Clinton's health care reform plan.
And we need health care reform, Clinton says, because if we don't get it, the country will run out of money.
"And when we need another expressway in Chicago like Congressman Rostenkowski used to get for us," Clinton said in his Monday speech, "there will be no money there!"
Even Rostenkowski, who has been smiling little these days, had to smile at that line. Where Chicago would put a fifth expressway, he couldn't tell you. But as long as he is in office, there will be money for one.
Which is Rostenkowski's entire campaign platform: I am the spigot through which the dollars flow. Get rid of me and the spigot gets turned off.
Call Rostenkowski's office and ask for his accomplishments and they will give you a list: $694 million for highways, $51.6 million for bridges, $1.94 billion for infrastructure, $326 million for transit, $250 million for aviation, $16.9 million for education.
"I don't like to talk pork," Rostenkowski says, "but when it's you vs. the other states, you better get your share."
But it should not be about money, Rostenkowski's opponents howl. This election should be about ethics! Honesty! Good government! That's what Clinton promised.
And it is true that Clinton campaigned on the promise of returning America to those people "who play by the rules."
But Dan Rostenkowski does play by the rules. His rules.
And his Rule No. 1 is that money talks.