Bow out, Mr. Rosty!

May 23, 1994|By Sandy Grady

AS HE strode down the marble hallways, the Corridors of Clout, where he was once treated obsequiously as a king, Dan Rostenkowski was hounded by press watchdogs baying for blood.

"When will you be indicted, congressman?" "Are you trying to cop a plea?" "Will you resign as chairman?" "Will you quit?"

Rep. Rostenkowski, D-Ill., lowered his bulldog chin and plowed soundlessly ahead.

No civility or mercy when the wolfpack senses the feds are one step away from slamming you with a felony indictment.

Ah, what a change from the giddy night two months ago, when in the saloons along the "El" stops of north Chicago, the Polish and Irish and Italians drank toasts to the man they call "Danny Rosty."

Despite doomsayers and the law's tightening noose, Dan Rostenkowski in effect won re-election to Congress with 50 percent of the vote. It was the old Daley machine's last hurrah. As one Chicago pol said, "They can't let this guy go."

Rosty knew the hard-bitten truth.

He owed his rescue from humiliation to Bill Clinton, a president who put loyalty over purity. Bill's Chicago kiss of approval for Rosty was replayed in TV ads like a Bears touchdown drive.

Never mind that it was raw, gut-level politics. The president knew if Dan went down the tubes, so would health-care reform. You could almost hear Bill echoing Dwight Eisenhower's plea about a black-sheep aide: "I need him."

Dan gushed gratitude: "This president is gutsy, honorable and courageous -- I'm proud to be a foot soldier in Bill Clinton's march for change."

Foot soldier? Dan Rostenkowski's a general, Bill Clinton's George S. Patton.

Now, in a deal that's as rich in congressional disgrace as Dan Rostenkowski's downfall, Democrats plot to keep General Rostenkowski's stars even while he faces a federal rap.

Word circulates that Eric Holder, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, is on the edge of nailing Mr. Rostenkowski on charges that he skimmed money from the House post office and ran scams with leased cars and Chicago offices. Rosty's lawyer, Robert Bennett, is haggling to lower the charges.

(It's an unnerving example of Washington coziness that Mr. Bennett is also Mr. Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones case. The prez and Rosty can get together and mourn their lawyer's $450-an-hour tab.)

For Attorney General Janet Reno, the Rosty case tests her reputation as someone bulletproof against pressure.

Letting Rosty off lightly with a misdemeanor charge would make Ms. Reno's tough talk of putting away violent street kids ring phony.

It would also reek of a deal in Mr. Clinton's Justice Department that mocks the ballyhoo over a crime bill larded with death penalties.

It will be tricky for Ms. Reno to keep her hands off such a politically explosive issue. She insists, "I'm counting on him (the U.S. attorney) to do the right thing."

What's unsavory, though, is the "Save Rosty's Clout" move brewing among his fellow House lions. If the feds indict Rosty on a lighter charge, they'd keep him as chairman of the Ways and Means committee.

"I don't believe he's committed an offense worthy of indictment," said House Speaker Tom Foley. "I have confidence in him as a man of integrity."

The vision of Rosty in a two-way stretch, running between the federal court house and the health-care debate, is a cartoonist's dream.

But wouldn't Americans guffaw at another instance of congressional corruption -- an indicted chairman in power? Wouldn't Republicans howl at Democrats being soft on crime in their own ranks?

"I don't think they're in a very good position to offer instruction," said Mr. Foley stiffly.

He was pointing at Rep. Joe McDade, R-Pa., still top-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee although under indictment for fraud and taking illegal gratuities.

Granted, Rosty may be as innocent as he protests. And yes, if not hit with a major felony charge, the rules would let him stay on a chairman. Sure, the president desperately needs his gruff, growling Chicago arm-twister -- no Rosty, no health-care bill.

But allowing Rosty to plea-bargain for a softer charge and keep his powerhouse job would rocket the cynicism meter sky-high -- you can beat the system if you know people in high places.

My hunch is that the least embarrassing, painful solution would be the Spiro Agnew "get-outta-town" maneuver.

When the feds indicted Richard Nixon's vice president for taking cash from contractors, they made a deal -- the vice president could walk free if he'd resign.

Too bad for Rosty. If he'd retired last year, he could have legally strolled away with a million campaign bucks. Now he'll be lucky to walk in disgrace.

But the tough-on-crime thunderers -- congressional Democrats and the president -- should be just as harsh when their bulldog pal Rosty is in the dock.

One strike and you're out.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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