The ways and means of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski

June 05, 1994|By Roger Simon | Roger Simon,Sun Columnist

CHICAGO -- On the morning of the worst day of his life, on the day he would be called a swindler, a thief and a liar on national television, Dan Rostenkowski sat alone, connected to the world only by a telephone.

A call came in from a well-wisher, not an important call, just another call from the legion of people who owed something to Rostenkowski, to Rosty, to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rosty took the call and, to the surprise of the caller, he did not seem down in the dumps. He seemed controlled and collected. In exactly the same way a smoldering volcano is controlled and collected.

"This is going to be their day," Rosty growled, knowing his indictment and the loss of his chairmanship would be announced in a few hours. "But there are going to be other days."

Tuesday was their day, the government's day. A handsome U.S. attorney with an Ivy League law degree -- Rosty never finished college and has a face like a junkyard bulldog -- announced that Dan Rostenkowski had been indicted on 17 felonies including the theft of $695,000, the misuse of public funds, and the intimidation of witnesses.

Those who knew Rostenkowski knew that his first and last instinct would be to fight the charges, but they also knew something else: that he would suffer real pain.

"All his life, he wanted to prove he was not some Chicago slug from the Northwest Side," said David Axelrod, a media consultant who helped engineer Rostenkowski's Democratic primary victory in March. "All his life, he wanted to end up different than the way a lot of Chicago politicians end up: in front of a judge"

The duality has haunted Rostenkowski all his life: He is part and parcel of Chicago in a thousand big and small ways -- to this day his watch is always set on Chicago time -- but he also wanted to rise above Chicago politics, to be something bigger, grander, more admired.

"I've had a reputation as a gut politician, a total political animal from the city of Chicago," Rosty said when he was revising the federal tax code.

"But I'm also trying . . . to do the responsible thing."

Elected to Congress at age 30 when the average age in the Illinois delegation was 72, Rostenkowski has stayed for 36 years to become a master of the game. He could have come back home and run for mayor when Richard J. Daley died in 1976, but he decided to stay in Washington to eventually become chairman of Ways and Means, the committee that has a hand in much of the taxing and spending of Congress.

"You can say the system is terrible, but it takes years to master the legislative process, and Rostenkowski did it," said Bill Daley, son of Chicago's late mayor, brother of its current mayor, and longtime friend of Rostenkowski. "Everything comes through Ways and Means. It's not some b.s. committee. Rosty didn't create the system; he mastered it. And when he's gone, there will be fewer people who understand it."

But even as he rose in Washington, Rosty never forgot where he came from. "Never does a bird fly so high that he doesn't have to go down for a drink of water," his father, a Chicago alderman and ward committeeman, told him.

"Drinking the water is back in Chicago," Dan Rostenkowski always said.

Bringing money home

Take a plane to his city and look about you. That new international terminal at O'Hare? Rosty got the money for it. The massive improvements on the Kennedy Expressway? Rosty's. The new Comiskey Park? A Rosty tax deal. The gleaming apartment spires just west of the Loop in what had been part of Skid Row? Rosty got that (and benefited one of his developer pals). And beneath your feet, well, beneath your feet is one of the largest sewers in the world, the Big Tunnel, a Rosty deal paid for by the taxpayers of America to keep Chicago basements dry during thunderstorms.

And it is not just bricks and mortar that he got. When United Airlines, headquartered in a Chicago suburb, wanted a Chicago-Tokyo route, Rosty wrote the letter. And when Mercy Hospital in Chicago needed a change in the Medicare laws to allow it and other hospitals serving low-income patients to get millions more in tax dollars, Rosty engineered it. (And it may be pure coincidence that should you drive past Mercy Hospital today you will see the Dan and LaVerne Rostenkowski Outpatient Surgical Center.)

It was how the game was played: There was enough for everybody. Millions, hundreds of millions, billions, passed through Rosty's fingers and under his pen. And for years he followed the rules set down by the master of Chicago politics, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley:

Never let the money stick to your fingers. Handle the money, dispense the money, help out your friends and family with the money, but don't keep the money.

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