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The ways and means of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski


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.

Daley funneled millions in city contracts to his friends, campaign contributors and even his sons. And when the goo-goos (good-government types, a Chicago insult) clucked their tongues, Mayor Daley didn't have to go out and hire some $500-an-hour lawyer to defend himself. Not in those days. In those days, you just issued a statement.

"If you can't help your friends and your family," Mayor Daley said, "who can you help?"

And when Daley died and his estate was made public, few were surprised to find there was not much there: The money had never stuck to his fingers.

Changing times

So what was different about Rosty? Did he break the rule? Or did he just forget that over time the rules change? And what was accepted with a wink and a nod yesterday may get you three to five in a federal pen today.

"Does political morality change?" Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak said in a phone interview from his vacation home in Marco Island, Fla. "It constantly evolves. And you never rely on what the rules are for today."

Vrdolyak should know. A former Chicago alderman, chairman of the powerful and potentially lucrative Buildings and Zoning committee, a former ward committeeman, a former chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, he was investigated by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies for decades. But they never could prove a thing, and a few years ago he retired from politics untouched, unindicted and a millionaire.

The secret?

"Treat everybody as if they are wired, everybody as if they are wearing a mike and every phone call as if it were tapped," Vrdolyak said. "That's advice you can take to the grave, and that may be advice Rosty forgot. But he's been a friend of mine for a long time, and I don't want to say anything against him. But I've got some other good advice for anybody who wants to go into public life: Whenever anybody says they are going to help you, grab your ass with both hands."

Machine politics

Helping people -- family, friends, campaign contributors -- that is what Machine politics is about. You give them help and they give you a vote, a few hours' work on election day, a dollar or two for the war chest.

(It is noted with grim irony here that one charge Rostenkowski has been indicted on -- requiring workers to kick back part of their salary to the ward office -- has been standard practice for a long time in some wards of the city.)

You know your friends, you know your enemies, and you keep track of which is which. That is how politics operated in Chicago, and it was part of Rostenkowski's genius that he imposed Chicago politics on Washington: He ran the Ways and Means Committee like it was his ward. Loyalty became the first and last rule. There were billions to spread around and not all of it could go to Chicago.

It could go to your district, to your hometown, and all you had to do was vote the way the Chairman said and some nice little project you could take credit for would suddenly appear back home, usually in an election year.

Rosty grasped the fundamental concept of his chairmanship: If you knew the ways, you could always find the means.

And if you crossed Rostenkowski? If you did not show loyalty, if you did not, to use another Chicago term, "kiss his ring"? Then you got stiffed. You got bupkiss, zippo, nada, nothing. And more: When Kent Hance, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, indicated to Rostenkowski that he might vote his own way, he noticed he was soon looking up to his colleagues -- literally.

"They had taken the wheels off my chair," Hance told a reporter. "I couldn't slide. I couldn't move." Later, the committee took a nice little junket to China, but not Hance. Rosty kept him off the plane.

Massaging the law

There were rules, of course, laws, but Rostenkowski had another Chicago method to deal with them: the Massage. You didn't break the laws -- not exactly. You didn't get caught on a videotape taking money from some Arab sheik in exchange for a vote. That was for mugs.

No, you handled the law, you massaged it. What are many of the charges against Rosty today when you really look at them: That he took money the government gave him for "official" use, but he used it for "personal" or "political" purposes instead.

And so he spent $23,000 on wooden armchairs engraved with his name and $12,000 for 60 crystal sculptures of the U.S. Capitol. And he handed them out to people like Bill Daley and the head of Commonwealth Edison in Chicago and the chief of the Chicago Board of Trade.

People, in other words, to whom these objects meant nothing. Less than nothing. (Where the hell would you put a chair with Dan Rostenkowski's name on it?) To both Rosty and the recipients these objects were certainly not bribes and not even gifts, they were symbols of Rosty's power, his largess, his ability to give out reminders of what and who he was.

And who says what he did was not for the public good, was not official? Didn't these people help his district, help his people? And isn't that what every congressman is elected to do? Which, in any case, is the way Rosty sees it.

Indictment 'devastating'

But a source highly placed in Chicago judicial circles, an expert on official corruption, has taken a look at the indictment against Rostenkowski and is less sanguine over what is alleged.

"The indictment is devastating," he said, willing to be quoted only if his name was not used. "Rosty is an old school guy who never changed. Some of the things he's accused of -- ghost payrollers, using government vehicles as his own -- he views those as the perks of a Machine boss. And he's so insulated by his power, that there was no one around him who would dare question his conduct.

"But what kind of defense is there for taking stamps and turning them in for cash and pocketing the money? Or telling a witness not to testify? Unless he can get the trial moved to Chicago -- and that might be difficult -- it will be tried in Washington, D.C. In Chicago, a jury might think that what Rostenkowski got was the spoils of office. But a black jury sitting in judgment on a fat cat white politician in Washington? I think he's dead in the water.

"The ironic thing is that Mayor [Richard J.] Daley never needed this stuff. He was dollar honest, because power was enough for him. What did he need dollars for? But Rosty apparently wanted more."

Which may be because Rosty was not Daley and never could be. He was always in Daley's shadow. And maybe he felt the need to be more than Daley: To have power, respectability, and money. Maybe he felt he had to have it all.

"In my hometown of Chicago, they call politics a blood sport," Rosty once said. "I have been pretty successful at it. I don't

apologize for getting in the arena, and I'll be damned if I'll apologize for winning."

No plea bargain

But when times changed, Rosty, some say, could not change with them. And when it was clear he was being investigated and could have gotten out of politics with a small fortune, he was as incapable of that as he was of accepting a plea bargain in which he would have to admit guilt.

He was not going to end up like just another Chicago pol. He was not going to end up pleading guilty in front of a judge. He would rather fight and go to prison for years than admit guilt and go there for months.

"I talked to him on the Saturday before the indictment," Bill Daley said, "and he had made up his mind not to take the plea bargain. He felt better about that. He felt better about fighting."

Fighting includes running for re-election in November. After a visit by President Clinton to his district in late February, Rosty got a surprisingly strong 50 percent of the vote in a five-way primary race in March. This fall, he will face a Republican unknown who does not even live in the district, but who is planning to move in any day now.

"Why is a nobody running against Rostenkowski in November?," David Axelrod, a Democratic partisan, said. "It's because Edgar [Jim Edgar, the Republican governor of Illinois] and other Republican leaders know how important Rosty is to Illinois. They don't really want to see him lose. Other states have increasing clout -- California, some states in the Southwest -- but Rosty was Illinois' hole card. He was the offsetting factor that let Illinois compete with the mega-states."

Far-reaching influence

He was also important on a national level. How much you pay in taxes today and how much you get in Social Security has, to a large extent, been determined by Dan Rostenkowski. And certain people in certain circles have often found him useful.

On one wall of Axelrod's office is a framed note dated March 25, 1994, shortly after Rostenkowski's primary victory:

"Dear David: Congratulations on the outstanding victory! The Chairman couldn't have done it without you. Your hard work is greatly appreciated."

It is signed Bill Clinton. But it is on his personal and not his White House stationery. The president is a careful man. In politics these days, it pays to be a careful man.

"The government's whole premise," Axelrod said, "is based on Rostenkowski's alleged venality. It they can't prove the dollars went into his pocket, but went to help people pay rent, a turkey at Xmas, it puts a gaping hole in the case."

Which, if Dick Simpson were a laughing man, would make him laugh. A certified goo-goo, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, Simpson has run against and lost to Rostenkowski in two Democratic primaries.

"Rosty enriches himself first, his family second, his friends third, and, if there is any money left over, he enriches others," Simpson said. "Chicagoans have a higher tolerance for corruption than other cities. In other cities, voters would have thrown Rostenkowski out by now. The voters knew he was corrupt at the time of the March primary, but the attitude was: 'He may be a crook, but at least he's our crook.' "

Re-election prospects

And in November? Will Rostenkowski be re-elected while under indictment?

"Yes," Simpson said, "unless the Republican Party puts a million dollars into this race, Rostenkowski will probably win. Rostenkowski has a patronage army working for him. On [primary] election day, he had 1,500 to 2,000 workers, mostly city and other government workers, out in the streets campaigning for him. They were not taking vacation days. Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and others had sent them out to save Rosty.

"You can overcome that kind of army with a media campaign or a direct mail campaign, but you have to get your message out and that takes money. A lot of money."

Bill Daley agrees. "I think Rostenkowski will win, but a lot depends on how much money the Republicans spend," he said. "I was shocked at how well he did in the primary. I thought he'd win by a little or lose by a lot."

But did he win because Chicago really is more tolerant of corruption than other cities?

"Big cities are where tough politics are played," Daley said. "It's hardball. And a lot of cities are like Chicago in this respect. But times do change. There is always a certain line you cannot cross. Danny Rostenkowski is tough and rough. He is a politician. And I mean that in the best sense."

And Chicago may be one of the last cities in America where being a politician still has a best sense.

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