From Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics, by Richard E. Cohen.
From day one, Dan Rostenkowski was content to be a workhorse. He was a product of a disciplined big-city organization, voted the party line, and lacked the training or inclination for self-promotion. But his advancement in the House was not a foregone conclusion; there were choices to be made. He had to determine his friends, his legislative interests, and his path to power. As a member of the House's "Tuesday-to-Thursday Club," he also needed to connect his work in Washington to his life in Chicago, where he returned each weekend. Without much reflection, he made those decisions early; they would have a great impact on his ultimate clout. He pursued his father Joe Rostenkowski's course of proving himself worthy to his elders. In a Capitol of growing influence and reach, he quietly sought to insert himself into the center of the action--on the big issues and in the struggles for power. And he quickly struck friendships with the power brokers.
When he arrived in Washington in 1959, the 31-year-old "kid" put himself in the hands of the crusty 80-year-old "Sheriff Tom" O'Brien, the chief of Chicago's Democratic delegation and a former Cook County sheriff. O'Brien was a loyalist who usually left the legislative details to others; he had neither the skill nor the inclination to deal with policy minutiae. His influence stemmed chiefly from his ability to deliver the Chicago-area Democrats to party leaders on most House votes. In return, he showered benefits on the most loyal members of his team. Since young Rostenkowski was elected with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's blessing, O'Brien was ready to call in a favor from other senior Democrats.
Rostenkowski walked into the office of O'Brien, who had served 22 years in Congress and whose career had begun in Springfield more than a half-century earlier, and found him wearing a white straw hat and sitting with his long, skinny legs propped up on his desk. "Blind Tom" (so named because "he couldn't see much evil" when he was county sheriff, Rostenkowski said with more than a trace of amusement) told Rostenkowski that he assumed he would want to follow his predecessor's footsteps to the Foreign Affairs Committee, where Thomas Gordon had been chairman. It was a throwaway comment. Given the new member's lack of interest or experience in world affairs, both knew that was unlikely. "I said no," Rostenkowski remembers. "I'll go on any committee you want me to go on." O'Brien then told Rostenkowski he could join the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, an influential panel that legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn had once chaired. The deal had been cut elsewhere, and the grateful Rostenkowski quickly accepted his spoils. "I didn't choose Commerce," he explains. "Tom O'Brien was a close personal friend of Sam Rayburn." Sheriff O'Brien was selective in doling out favors: the two other first-term Democrats from Chicago were assigned to less influential committees.
Rostenkowski also courted Eugene Keogh, 51, a fastidious dresser and savvy Brooklyn lawyer who was the key power broker in the New York City delegation. Like many members at the time, he retained a law practice back home that benefited financially from his work in Congress. He also controlled the reins in Washington for New York City's Democratic machine, which was still referred to as Tammany Hall. First elected in 1936, Keogh--like O'Brien--was a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee. He gained his legislative mark as the father of a major pension benefit that bore his name; not coincidentally, it especially benefited self-employed workers such as himself.
Rostenkowski wasn't yet ready to serve on Ways and Means, but he found a way to hang out with those who did and to learn how power was exercised in the Capitol. Keogh typically held court with other big-city Democrats at fancy Washington restaurants during the two or three nights a week they spent in the capital. Rostenkowski was invited because the others saw him as a comer and he was willing to pay homage to the elders. During the bonding sessions, large amounts of food and beverages were served along with devious plots and improbable tales.
James Healey Jr., who was Rostenkowski's top political aide on Capitol Hill during the 1970s and later became a high-powered lobbyist, began attending those dinners in the early 1960s, when he was a Georgetown University undergraduate and his father, James Healey, was a New York City congressman. "I learned more about this business [of politics] at those dinners than I did in the classroom," said Healey. "But you needed a thick skin. In a jovial way, they were very insulting." Chuck Daly, a White House aide who was a liaison to the House during the Kennedy years, had similar memories. On one occasion, Daly recalled, Keogh asked an influential Chicago alderman what he did. The visiting pol boasted, "A congressman carries my bags," Daly said. "That set Keogh on his heels."
The dinners were an important part of Rostenkowski's education. The other leaders "controlled a lot of votes," said Rep. Jake Pickle, a Texas Democrat who was close to Lyndon Johnson. "Danny learned a lot of power politics from them."
Rostenkowski recalled that one evening in 1965 the usual big-city Democrats were seated around a table at Paul Young's, a popular meat-and-potatoes restaurant four blocks north of the White House on Connecticut Avenue. After several drinks and dinner, the waiter brought a telephone to the table for Keogh. As he respectfully responded, "Yes, sir. ...Yes, sir," to the caller, the others at the table boisterously poked fun at him. But when Keogh finished, he passed the phone to Rostenkowski, who quickly began a "Yes, sir" response of his own. As it turned out, Lyndon Johnson had located the lawmakers and was trying to persuade them to sign a discharge petition to circumvent a committee that had stymied legislation to grant limited home rule to District of Columbia residents. LBJ's lobbying proved successful at the dinner table and in the House. (As Rostenkowski later lamented, it was the only time he succumbed to pressure to circumvent the House's regular order and sign a discharge petition.)
Years later Rostenkowski would invite junior members to similar dinners to badger them and to pass on his often-exaggerated stories. As he had learned from his mentors, he used these get-togethers to encourage independent and often-fractious colleagues to become better acquainted. Although politics had changed, some of the old customs remained handy.
The Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marked by bloody confrontations in the streets between demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War and Mayor Daley's police force. Rostenkowski, by now chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, stood by Daley.
As delegates learned of the violence, many grew enraged. The convention hall became a snarling pit, especially during the Tuesday night debate of proposed anti-war language for the Democratic platform. At one point, Daley, seated on the convention floor with the Illinois delegation, signaled House Majority Leader Carl Albert--who was presiding over the bedlam--to end the debate. He moved a finger across his neck in a dramatic sign to silence the speaker. That incident deeply embarrassed Albert, the little-known Oklahoman who had been a faithful lieutenant in the House--especially because he failed to constrain the mayhem.
"Every attempt to transact orderly business," Albert wrote in his autobiography, "ran headlong into all of the bitterness, all of the divisions and all of the frustrations that our assembly only mirrored. I can only say that it looked and sounded awfully confusing to the presiding officer up there on the rostrum."
Lyndon Johnson, however, saw it differently. Watching on television from his Texas ranch, the lame-duck President grew agitated over Albert's failure to maintain order. On Wednesday night, rioting in the streets prompted anti-war delegates to demand that Daley's police end their attacks on protesters. The anger intensified when Sen. Abraham Ribicoff took the podium to nominate Sen. George McGovern for President. Ribicoff infuriated the Illinois delegation when he criticized the "Gestapo in the streets of Chicago."
During the ensuing fracas, according to Rostenkowski, the President telephoned the podium to demand that someone other than Albert wield the gavel. Rostenkowski was on the platform. Clary Sochowski, his top Washington aide, picked up the call and told Rostenkowski, "The President is on the line." When Rostenkowski took the phone, LBJ told him, "God damn, get order in the hall. Take that gavel." Rostenkowski wouldn't do it. Albert was his boss in the House. Only later that night did he bang the gavel when it was time to adjourn the convention.
As Albert later told the story, "I had done what I thought was a favor when I handed him the gavel to preside briefly and ceremoniously over the delegates assembled in his hometown." After the convention, however, Rostenkowski embellished the incident, even reversing the outcome of LBJ's call, as he described it to colleagues and others.
The peeved Albert heard Rostenkowski's version. "I had forgotten the whole incident by the time the story began to circulate that big Dan Rostenkowski had wrestled the gavel out of the hands of little Carl Albert because only big Dan Rostenkowski could bring order to that convention. If that were so, no one had told me about it at the time." The truth is, only one man could have made Rostenkowski defy the next speaker of the House. According to Alderman Ed Burke, a longtime Rostenkowski pal, "Danny answered to a higher authority. He answered to Richard Daley, not to Carl Albert."
Two years later, Albert delivered a crushing setback to Rostenkowski by triggering his removal from the House Democratic leadership ladder, and by sending a message that Daley's influence was not as welcome in Washington as it had been. When Albert took over as speaker in January 1971, Rostenkowski still hoped for appointment as majority whip, the third-ranking Democratic position. Had he gained that post, he probably would have become majority leader and then speaker, quite possibly within the decade. Instead, Rostenkowski's bad-mouthing of Albert resulted in his ouster from the top ranks.
"Danny did not embarrass Mr. Albert at the Chicago convention, but he embarrassed Albert because of what he said after the convention, that he had to take the gavel because Carl couldn't manage the convention," said Jim Wright of Texas, an occasional ally of Rostenkowski. "That was an unnecessary and gratuitous insult."
The 1980 election that swept Ronald Reagan into office also resulted in the defeat of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Al Ullman, D-Ore. Ullman, who was unable to lead the committee with the force of legendary Chairman Wilbur D. Mills, D-Ark., was replaced by Rostenkowski.
From the start, Rostenkowski displayed several traits that remained consistent during his 13 years as chairman, regardless of the issue, the President, or the politics. Win or lose--and he certainly suffered his share of setbacks--Rostenkowski was a consensus-builder who worked the committee's center.
Like Mills, he closely monitored other committee members, patiently probing to find a majority. Likewise, he had no interest in moving a bill to the House floor if it was not going to pass. He sought to avoid extreme positions that wouldn't survive; not for him were the liberals' latest fads on taxes, trade, health care, or the other major issues facing Ways and Means. He played his cards close to his vest and, not surprisingly, displayed a Chicagoan's deal-making instincts.
Chuck Daly, the former Kennedy White House legislative aide, recalls a visit to Rostenkowski in his Capitol Hill office to seek a tax-law change on behalf of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, of which he was president. "It was a small change in a big bill," Daly said. "Danny said he would do it, and he did. ...I never met his staff, and I didn't have to lobby anyone."
Rostenkowski made a point of contrasting himself to Ullman, who led the committee with a light hand and was never troubled by a setback. Whenever the committee finished work on a bill during Tip O'Neill's years as speaker, Rostenkowski typically informed him immediately of the result and requested support.
But unlike Mills, Rostenkowski did not usually embrace a detailed set of views to guide debate. "Mills dominated the committee because of his command of the tax code," said Robert Reischauer, who worked closely with Ways and Means as director of the Congressional Budget Office. "Rostenkowski commanded the committee through his political judgment and his ability to make a deal." As chairman, his job was to satisfy demands within the House and with the President so that he could enact legislation.
"He was driven by a desire to legislate," said Rob Leonard, a tax expert who was a chief Rostenkowski aide for nearly two decades. "He wanted ink on the parchment," Leonard said, referring to bills sent to the White House for a President's signature. Like many other modern lawmakers, Rostenkowski did not agonize over policy nuances; it was the staff's responsibility to make sure that the words made sense and that the papers were straight. Conceding that he was no expert on the intricacies of tax or social-welfare policy, he hired well-versed aides who were fiercely loyal to him. He gave them broad leeway to shape legislation, leaving for himself the political judgments and actions that were required to pass the proposals. "Is it good law?" was his directive to his aides. "I want that on my tombstone."
Typically Rostenkowski made his tactical decisions following a discussion with his advisers (usually without other House members) at an office table in his inner sanctum. Although the aides sometimes clashed personally, they played it straight with one another and the boss. "His staff was excellent," said Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut, a Ways and Means Democrat. "They worked night and day and were totally dedicated to him. They listened to him. ...But they wanted to keep the reputation of Ways and Means, and they did not want to steer it in the wrong direction."
They spent much of their time reviewing options with other committee members and attempting to balance competing interests. "He reacted better to verbal briefings so that he could listen, absorb, and raise questions," said Rob Leonard. Rostenkowski did not spend much time reading memos of more than a couple of pages. "He acknowledged in many ways that he was not a technician and that much of this stuff was indecipherable without the help of staff," said Joe Dowley, who served as Ways and Means staff director from 1985-87. "But he was willing to work at it."
Like Dowley and Leonard, most of Rostenkowski's other top aides stayed in Washington after they left his Capitol Hill staff, typically becoming downtown lawyers earning far greater compensation from corporate clients.
The Rosty Touch
It didn't take long for Rostenkowski to develop a reputation as a wheeler-dealer Ways and Means chairman. His legislative successes included the 1982 tax increase bill, the 1983 reform of Social Security, and the 1986 tax reform act.
Rostenkowski had a method for finding a majority on Ways and Means. First he held preliminary discussions to identify the views of Ways and Means members and problems that might generate opposition. Then the chairman conferred one-on-one to discuss changes that members demanded before they could support a proposal. Finally, especially if Rostenkowski agreed to accommodate a member, he required a pledge of unwavering support for the overall bill.
His style was based on deal-making notions that have become old-fashioned, almost corny: "It takes two sides to make a deal." Once it is struck, "a deal is a deal"; so woe unto anyone who reneges. Such informal rules bore "the unmistakable imprint from his apprenticeship in the Chicago Democratic machine," wrote Randall Strahan in his study of Ways and Means.
Settling in as chairman, Rostenkowski became larger than life, especially to Ways and Means colleagues. He sometimes play-acted in asking their price for supporting legislation. "Once, we were in a dark room, and he asked me in the voice of Don Corleone [from the film The Godfather], `What do you need, kid' to support the bill?" recounted Mike Andrews, a Texas Democrat who joined the committee in 1986. "I told him what I wanted. He said, `You got it.'...Danny ran the committee the old-fashioned way, with loyalty, trust, and his word."
Even when members figured out some of Rostenkowski's tricks, they had few opportunities to challenge him. "Once, when it was my turn to go to [Room] H-208 in the Capitol for a meeting, he took out his negotiating book and listed the four things he could do for me," said Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who served for a decade on Ways and Means before he was elected to the Senate in 1992. But Dorgan wasn't grateful for the gifts. "I said that the first two he had already given to other members." Rostenkowski later told Dorgan that he was "the only one to break my code."
Then there was the promise to Ray McGrath, a New York Republican and frequent ally of the chairman. "I will be with you until the end," Rostenkowski told McGrath during the tax-reform debate in 1985, when Empire State lawmakers demanded to retain the deductibility of state and local sales-tax payments. During Rostenkowski's final negotiations with Reagan administration officials, the chairman late one night reluctantly abandoned that promise in order to salvage the broader deal. Alerted to the concession, McGrath sought out Rostenkowski the next morning to ask whether the rumor was true. According to McGrath, he responded, "Ray, I told you I'll be with you until the end. This is the end."
Of course, committee members' demands often clashed. Or the cost to the Treasury of favored baubles might far exceed budget strictures. One lawmaker's "good government" might be anathema to a colleague or--worse yet--to the President. A chairman must resolve such conflicts and persuade members to support compromise legislation. "It was a marketplace," said a veteran Rostenkowski aide. "All members had their own list of what they wanted and some other things they put on the table that were less important. The problem was to divine everybody's price and not spend a dollar more than was needed. That had to be matched up with fiscal and tax-policy considerations."
Although he handled most committee contacts himself, Rostenkowski invited a few Ways and Means Democrats into his inner circle, to solicit their advice and to make assignments for dealing with other House members. "The people who liked him understood that he needed information," said an aide. Probably the most reliable friends were Tom Downey of New York, Ed Jenkins of Georgia, and Marty Russo from the southern edge of Chicago. Each was first elected to the House in the mid-1970s and had gained respect among various factions. "We gave him a lot of news that Rostenkowski didn't want to hear...on legislation or his personality, for example," Downey said. They also gave him a useful bridge to junior members whom he knew barely, if at all.
In a House of 435 members, he needed a lot of help. Noncommittee members would jokingly boast, "Danny spoke to me today," said Jake Pickle of Texas. Even with some Illinois neighbors he felt no need to learn their names if they lacked influence. "It was four or five years before he knew who I was," said Dennis Hastert, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs who was first elected in 1986 and became House speaker a dozen years later.
Rostenkowski's close relationship with his committee members permitted him to stay current with Capitol gossip. To succeed he needed a precise understanding of the members' political interests--both in the House and in their home districts. He also needed to engender confidence and trust. By deftly granting technical provisions or local favors in exchange for support for a bill, he cultivated a cohesive and loyal team.
"He was the ultimate master: games-player, strategist, bully," Downey said. "He had a better feel for members--a street instinct, a sense that you reward your friends and punish your enemies." Although his image was often fearsome, even among colleagues, Rostenkowski could be quite convivial. He encouraged teamwork by organizing informal get-togethers of Ways and Means members. Given the relentless schedule pressures of their job, that could be difficult. In part he resorted to the technique he learned in his early days in the House, when machine Democrats would assemble for dinner at a fancy downtown restaurant.
His favorite was Morton's, a Chicago-owned franchise in Georgetown that featured large cocktails, huge steaks, and a robust ambiance; needless to say, that was Rostenkowski's kind of place. He was enough of a regular that Morton's maitre d' reserved a special table for him on most weekday evenings. In contrast to the days when he was the junior member who listened to the old-timers' stories, Rostenkowski was now the host and chief raconteur. "We had dinner at least three times a month and shared anxieties and family information," Downey said.
The chairman also built loyalty with committee-sponsored trips--often derided as junkets--to other nations, where members would explore local problems and take in the sights. (In an embarrassing incident during a supposed review of U.S.-Caribbean trade problems, Rostenkowski's group was captured by ABC investigative cameras partying on a beach in Barbados.) And he organized bipartisan weekend "retreats" for committee members outside Washington, ostensibly to focus on emerging policy issues. The retreat sites usually contained a golf course and other recreational facilities.
Although outsiders might criticize these get-togethers as ethically inappropriate or professionally inconsequential, a high-level participant praised them. Robert Reischauer, who participated as Congressional Budget Office director, thought the forums were "unusual for Congress in creating an environment in which members could learn without cameras in front of them"; they were especially useful, he added, given the "amazing lack of informal contact among members."
"He had a pride in the committee," said Barbara Kennelly, a Democrat from Connecticut. "Members off the committee wanted to get on. Those on the committee were very proud to be there. That's where the action was. ...Danny liked Ways and Means. And he was not willing to take his foot off home plate."
Rumblings at Home
As Rostenkowski's power grew in Washington, he faced complaints that he was taking political support in Chicago for granted.
Whenever Rostenkowski responded to demands from his district, he required that petitioners follow some rules. First, they had to show respect for his office. At all meetings except those of Chicago Democrats, he dictated the terms and usually the place of business. "They had to come to him, as people came to his father when he was the ward committeeman," Commerce Secretary Bill Daley said. "He built himself up by showing that he could get the job done."
As Rostenkowski gained influence, "he didn't like to do events in Chicago," said an aide. His public meetings outside Washington were chiefly with business or trade groups on their turf or at a pleasant vacation spot where he delivered a speech. In those cases he usually received money for his pocket, his campaign fund, or a favorite charity; he required, of course, that each payment comply with ethics rules of the time.
Second, he valued hierarchy. Those seeking to do business with the Ways and Means chairman were expected to have done their homework. When Charles Walgreen III, chief executive of the Chicago-based Walgreen drugstore chain, visited Washington to request an adjustment of federal reimbursement rules for his pharmaceutical products, he brought along a young vice president to explain the technical jargon to Rostenkowski. That was a mistake because it showed that the "issue was not important to Charlie," said a Rostenkowski aide. Walgreen came up empty because he failed to understand that business was personal for the Ways and Means chairman.
Third, his meetings usually were swift and to the point. "He's the equivalent of Jack Webb in the `Dragnet' TV show," said David Axelrod, a political consultant and ex-newspaperman. "He just wants the facts." If Rostenkowski felt that guests were wasting his time, he tapped his fingers on his desk to move the discussion along. Even when he agreed with them, he usually would nod and elliptically convey that he would take care of the problem. Corporate executives visiting his office "go in to see him and they come out fast," Bill Griffin, who was the chief aide to Jane Byrne when she was mayor of Chicago, told Tom McNamee of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He is not a person who will dance you around. It's yes or no."
That gruff style sometimes posed problems in Chicago. In Congress, hierarchy was accepted as a way to do business in a large and unwieldy institution. As Ways and Means chairman, Rostenkowski didn't mind if some House colleagues were unhappy with him, as long as a majority supported him in a showdown. By contrast, in rough-and-tumble Chicago, political players often held grudges against their adversaries. And the local news media gave more attention to those conflicts than to the details and results of arcane congressional debates. So while he won little credit locally for his accomplishments, Rostenkowski frequently found himself the critics' target for his parochial efforts to help friends and for alleged sweetheart deals he won for himself.
Citizen activists kept drawers stuffed with yellowing files of his misdeeds. The headlines frequently were hostile: "2 Area Dems Get Big Special-Interest Gifts," the Chicago Daily News reported in 1977 about large campaign contributions to Rostenkowski and his pal Marty Russo; that same year, the Chicago Tribune ran a story, "Rostenkowski Renting U.S. Office From His Sisters"; in 1986 the Sun-Times headlined, "Rosty Dealt a Windfall Profit by Pal."
Whatever their validity, such charges helped to explain why so many voters saw him as just another venal politician. For years Rostenkowski privately dismissed such charges as false, irrelevant, or both. But he made little effort to combat them. Unlike most of his colleagues in the 1990s, he refused to hold local press conferences or to hire a press aide to tout his accomplishments.
"Although he went out of his way to tell the governor and the mayor what he was doing, there was a side of him that said it was up to the public to know about his activities," said Rob Leonard, his Ways and Means staff director for six years. Until the end of his career, these shortcomings were not a political problem, largely because Rostenkowski did not face serious challengers for reelection. But when he finally confronted credible opposition, he found himself in a deep ditch.
A New President
After 12 years of dealing with Republican Presidents, Rostenkowski was eager to work with newly elected President Bill Clinton. One of the first issues they had to confront was how to fashion legislation fulfilling Clinton's campaign promise to reform the health care system.
Rostenkowski sought to share with the new President his experience with health reform. Bill Clinton is "smart as a whip, but he's not about to discover a magic bullet that we're unaware of," he said after the 1992 election. Days before the inaugural, he was part of a small group of senior Democrats who privately met Clinton in the Capitol. At one point the two of them were sitting alone. "I said, `Mr. President, you are going to engage yourself in probably the hardest legislative agenda you can imagine,' " Rostenkowski recalled. " `If you want my advice, we should focus on one thing and try to solve it. ...Come up with principles and pass the bill over to Rostenkowski and [Senate Majority Leader George] Mitchell, and have us kick the ball around' " with key members and affected interests.
The President and his staff obviously ignored Rostenkowski's warnings. When the President, five days after taking office, appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton to head the health-reform task force, it struck Rostenkowski as an unnecessary risk and a poor choice; critics would be less candid in appraising the work of the President's wife, he feared.
As time went on and the task force immersed itself in enormous detail in reviewing options, Rostenkowski grew even more troubled. Not only was the first lady conducting her review entirely in private, she was not reaching out to Republicans or to health-industry groups. Worse, Ira Magaziner, whom the President appointed as the chief White House aide on the project, had little experience in Washington and virtually no background in health-care policy.
As Haynes Johnson and David S. Broder wrote in The System, Rostenkowski had his doubts about Magaziner, a self-styled wonk who had never worked in government. "I wish he had some dirt under his fingernails," Rostenkowski said. Magaziner was "completely insensitive to the legislative process," complained a Rostenkowski aide. Instead of the months-long review, Rostenkowski told Clinton to lay out broad principles and let Congress fill in the details. As rumors spread that the President's reforms would surpass previous proposals, the chairman grew even more uneasy.
Clinton's delay in unveiling his health-reform plan until Congress completed his economic program put off serious discussion until nearly the midpoint of the 103rd Congress. After the President described the plan in his Sept. 22 prime-time speech at the Capitol, the Administration scheduled Mrs. Clinton to testify the next week before several House and Senate committees, starting with Ways and Means. At that appearance Rostenkowski cited her Chicago background and heaped praise on her articulate presentation. "I think in the very near future the President will be known as your husband," he said following her testimony.
But the autumn 1993 offensive proved less successful than White House strategists had hoped. Behind the scenes, interminable drafting work postponed formal submission of the plan until November 20, six days before Congress concluded its 1993 session.
Ways and Means also was set back by Clinton's request for approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the United States and Canada signed with Mexico. Rostenkowski spent several weeks engineering side deals with members who sought to protect the economic interests of businesses in their districts. The House passed the implementing legislation on November 17, by a vote of 234 to 200, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.
In building that old-fashioned coalition, Rostenkowski received help from large corporations, creating what one Ways and Means Democrat termed "a countervailing force" to challenge active opposition by organized labor. Truth be told, he would have preferred that kind of consensus-building on health-care reform. But the stubbornness of the Clintons and Magaziner--plus harsh criticism by Republicans--ruled out bipartisanship. History might well have been different if Clinton had used the NAFTA political model on health reform.
A 1991 federal inquiry into wrongdoing in the operations of the House post office began focusing on Rostenkowski. In 1994, Rostenkowski was indicted and lost his bid for re-election. He had served in the House for 36 years.
Rostenkowski's advisers had been warning him for many years that he was heading for a fall. They worried that he operated perilously close to the line of legally acceptable behavior. He flirted with danger in his belief that he could play by the old rules that were in place when he first came to Washington. Because of his scorn for the more rigorous ethics standards, both in the House and at the Justice Department, he ignored warnings that the new rules applied to his conduct. His downfall was a head-on collision that had been waiting to happen.
When his aides in the early 1980s "discussed some of his legal problems with him, we warned that he was skating on the edge," said John Sherman, his former press secretary and confidant. "He responded it was legal, even though I said it doesn't look good." But what was legal? That was a major part of his problem. "Dan Rostenkowski came to the House in the 1950s, and he had a set of rules," said Dennis Eckart, who served 12 years in the House before retiring in 1992, at age 42. "In the 1990s he used 1950s' rules. The standards changed and he didn't change with them."
The elements that led to his conviction were tragic and pitiful. On one level he was "trapped in events beyond his control," as one reporter wrote during the criminal investigation. A 1991 inquiry into reports of illegal drug sales in the House post office took on a life of its own as zealous prosecutors moved from one target to another, many of which ranged far from the original reason for investigation.
Years later, Rostenkowski pointed to the comment of Henry Hyde--the Illinois Republican who represents a district that neighbors the one Rostenkowski held for more than 20 years and who eventually chaired Judiciary Committee hearings that led to President Clinton's impeachment. "I have learned only too painfully what the abuse of governmental power can do to someone's life and career," said Hyde, according to the Chicago Tribune, after federal regulators' lengthy review of a collapsed Chicago-area savings and loan association where he had been a director.
Rostenkowski was convicted on charges that were picayune compared with those of the indictment. Although prosecutors indicted him on 17 counts for allegedly misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in official funds, he pleaded guilty to only two counts. He admitted that he illegally purchased assorted china from the House stationery store, including $200 crystal sculptures of the U.S. Capitol that were inscribed with his friends' names--which he sent as gifts. The second charge he admitted in court dealt with the "padding" of his payroll with employees who did little or no work, aside from routine tasks for Rostenkowski and his family.
He steadfastly maintained his innocence on the broader and more publicized abuses at the House post office, including the claim that he traded official stamps for personal cash, which was the linchpin for the criminal focus. Prosecutors never presented their case in a manner that would have permitted a vigorous cross-examination and defense, let alone a jury's verdict of these allegations.
Perhaps the greatest personal tragedy was that the Chicago pol who had risen to such national influence was brought down by the type of penny-ante abuse that ensnared two-bit local politicians. "Certain of his activities made sense from a Chicago perspective," said former Rep. Ed Derwinski, the Illinois Republican. "If you understand the relationship of ward committeemen, you can understand the mind-set of giving the gifts...and maintaining the principle of loyalty."
Although federal prosecutors and the handful of journalists who pursued his case were convinced that he was guilty, they never proved that Rostenkowski took a penny for himself. So the big operator on Capitol Hill who could have pocketed from his committee work millions of dollars--legally or illegally--had he really wanted the cash, instead took a fall for a pittance.
Serving Time, Alone
After his 1996 plea agreement, Rostenkowski began serving time in the federal prison in Oxford, Wisconsin.
Rostenkowski was stoic about his imprisonment. "It's like the army, but we don't march," he told friends. He expressed little concern for his well-being. If he was ashamed, he voiced it chiefly in terms of failure to care for his family. In prison he made the striking decision to refuse visitors from the outside world. Presumably because of his humiliation, he turned down all requests from acquaintances in Chicago and Washington.
Although prison-camp inmates were entitled to visitors on alternate weekends, he said he wanted no friends or family members--"especially my family," he said--to see him under those conditions. As a result, even though his attorneys had requested assignment to Oxford because it would be more convenient for his family, he did not see his wife and four daughters for more than a year; he did speak regularly with them and others on the prison telephone.
Even when he agreed to permit me to visit him, he demanded that I not discuss or write about his conditions before his release. He did not wish to jeopardize his early release, he said. During eight hours of conversations over a two-day period, he was eerily like the Rostenkowski of Capitol Hill. He was remarkably well informed about current events. He was animated, feisty, and hopeful about his future, including the prospect of private-sector work.
In dealing with other prisoners, he said, "I'm very quiet and introverted. I don't try to solve anybody's problems and I don't assume anything. ...Some inmates come to me. But I don't want to build up hopes that I can solve their problems."
With his experience and skill in the exercise of power, Rostenkowski understood the need for prison discipline. The regimentation was reminiscent of operating as a cog in an old-fashioned precinct organization. "I'm just a number here," he said. "I don't mind that at all. I don't give anyone the impression that I'm a know-it-all." Wearing an olive-green polyester uniform, he did not look so different from many other inmates who also were meeting with visitors around card tables in a small cafeteria.
Following his prison release, he said, he wanted to resume a normal life "so that people won't see me as a novelty. ...It will take four or five times before people no longer say, `There's Dan Rostenkowski, the felon.' Then I'll again be the average citizen."
Did he miss the fancy dinners and high life to which he had become accustomed? "I adjust to the situation," he responded. "When I get out of here, I'll be Danny Rostenkowski again. I have enjoyed my life."
Notwithstanding the blemishes at the close of his career, Rostenkowski's legislative record and his personality left indelible marks. On Capitol Hill and in Chicago he was one of the towering figures of the last half of the 20th century. Even so, his self-portrayal as "an average citizen" should not be dismissed as false modesty.
Although Rostenkowski clearly enjoyed the good life when it came to travel and hospitality, he nevertheless spent seven decades in his family home across the street from the family church--testimony to his strong sense of place and personal roots. Rostenkowski's passion for order and familiarity were trademarks throughout his career, from his attachment to the Ways and Means Committee to his dinners with friends. No doubt that desire to avoid change occasionally got him into trouble.
"The road curved, but he kept driving straight," said Rep. Dennis Eckart. That was the case not only with his legal problems but also with his approach to public policy. Above all he was a centrist, in both philosophical terms and his personal dealings. Amid all the twists and turns in the debates over federal taxes, health care, and economic policy, Rostenkowski's views remained consistent.
He defined his goals in incremental terms, both for himself and for government. He paid a price within his own party. Legislators like David Obey of Wisconsin grew enraged that the Ways and Means chairman sold out Democratic principles of protecting the middle class. And Democratic campaign impresarios like Tony Coelho of California grumbled that he was not sufficiently attuned to electoral imperatives. Still other Democrats considered him arrogant and condescending. But Rostenkowski usually brushed off his critics and concentrated on showing that he was a strong chairman who got things done.
Overcoming doubts--including his own--that he could perform on the political stage, Rostenkowski showed an intuitive sense of how to move legislation. "He had a unique ability to gather information and to understand the needs of members," said Bob Matsui, a Ways and Means Democrat and a Rostenkowski admirer. "He had an uncanny knack for understanding people and how a scenario can play out." Part of that was apparent in his system of rewards and punishments. The same chairman who removed the wheels from a mutinous Democrat's chair also provided blandishments to a colleague whose support he required.
"I never had anyone treat me more fairly," said Bill Brewster, the Oklahoma Democrat. Although his demands could be blunt, his sense of timing also reflected an astute negotiator's well-developed guile. That was especially true in the parliamentary marathons that have become a recurring part of modern legislative life, whether in more conventional committee debates such as tax reform in 1985 or in ad hoc negotiations that led to the 1990 budget deal.
His longevity, accomplishments, and symbolism in the nation's shifting political landscape were unparalleled. Unlike other Democratic lawmakers in influential positions, Rostenkowski was willing to take his swings and make his deals. That helps to explain why he had a longer litany of legislation to his credit than did other Democratic power brokers of his time, such as Rep. John Dingell of Michigan or Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. His many pens from presidential bill-signings were totems of his proud legacy. He was part of the action, often as an indispensable player. His consensus-building skills, the kind of skills that today are rare, deserve respect and encouragement in a society that has become increasingly factionalized.
At a June 1994 Washington dinner with academics a week after he was indicted, Rostenkowski may have written his epitaph: "I want you people to be able to say, `That son of a bitch, he had some guts, he had some fortitude, he realized what you had to be in order to be a national legislator.' "
Richard E. Cohen, 51, has been a staff correspondent for National Journal since 1973 and has covered Congress since 1977. A recipient of the Dirksen Prize for distinguished reporting on Congress, Cohen has also written Washington at Work: Back Rooms and Clean Air and Changing Course in Washington: Clinton and the New Congress.