Rostenkowski Hopes To Set Forth On the Road to Redemption
By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer
CHICAGO -- Inside a rehabbed storefront just west of downtown, Dan Rostenkowski is at work on the phone, his lifeline to the past. Everywhere in the three-room suite are reminders of his former life as one of Capitol Hill's most powerful players. On the coffee table is the day's Washington Post, two newsweeklies and Vanity Fair, and on the walls are photographs of Rostenkowski with three presidents, including one of him and his wife, LaVerne, at President Clinton's inauguration in 1992.
On the phone, Rostenkowski tells a caller, "I talked to Al Gore yesterday . . . " and recounts a recent conversation with the vice president about ways to deal with the expected surplus in the federal budget.
This is the former Ways and Means Committee chairman hard at work, building a legislative consulting firm he calls Danross Associates, Inc. But he is also busy with something that concerns him much more: Rebuilding his reputation and his legacy after a 15-month stint in a federal prison and a halfway house.
In the past two decades, the path back from disgrace to Washington player status has been well trod by former officeholders, all once ruined by scandal but now contentedly consulting and lobbying in some of the capital's most elite circles. Yet it is proving to be especially difficult for the 70-year-old Democrat, not because his crimes were any worse than the others' but because he at heart belongs to an earlier time, when the power of committee chairmen was unquestioned and a fall from grace was fatal.
The son of Polish immigrants, Rostenkowski is an inordinately proud man. He learned politics by way of Chicago's vaunted machine, and he belongs to the pre-confessional age, when practical deal-making trumped ideology every time, when no one apologized for wielding power with sticks instead of carrots and when you just didn't spill your emotional guts on the network news.
"I don't even talk about it with my close friends," Rostenkowski said of his prison experience, during a rare interview Jan. 14. "It's gone. It's behind me."
But Rostenkowski vacillates between the bravado that made him so fearsome as the House's chief tax writer for more than a dozen years and an impossible-to-mask vulnerability. He wants to come back and stay active, not by lobbying, which he flatly rules out, but by advising organizations and corporations on the many tricks of the trade he picked up in 36 years in Congress. That would allow him to supplement a $104,000-a-year congressional pension and pay off legal debts that once topped $3 million.
But he has not been back to Washington since his release from a low-security prison camp in Oxford, Wis., in August, and he has no immediate plans to visit his old friends in the capital. Asked whether he worries about how he will be treated, he answers without hesitation, "Sure.
"But from the telephone calls that I get from people who are encouraging me -- and I'm just mirroring now what people have said -- a lot of people think that I got a raw deal," Rostenkowski said.
He paused for a moment, then flashed the side of his political personality that made him one of Congress' legendary deal-makers. It is Dan Rostenkowski, the no-bull realist from the city of plain-speaking pols. "Then again," he said with a half-smile, "I expect to hear that from people, even the ones who don't think I got such a raw deal."
Fall From Power
Rostenkowski's reign in Washington ended in 1996 when he pleaded guilty to reduced charges in exchange for federal prosecutors dropping a broad complaint alleging that he ran multiple petty scams from his office. Included were charges that he kept ghost employees on the payroll, traded in officially purchased stamps for cash at the House post office, and used congressional funds to buy chairs and other gifts for friends.
With that, Rostenkowski was forced to give up a 42-year career in public service, beginning as a protege to the late and legendary Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and as an Illinois state legislator at age 24. After recovering from prostate cancer at a medical prison in Rochester, Minn., Rostenkowski was transferred to the federal facility in Wisconsin, joining a population of tax evaders, white-collar scam artists and drug dealers.
He now bristles at suggestions he owes anyone an apology. And although friends say he is privately mortified by the trouble he created for himself, Rostenkowski, at least during the interview, downplayed the seriousness of the case. He worries that it will grossly overshadow and demean his achievements in public life, which included the 1990 budget deal, the major tax overhaul legislation in 1986 and the Social Security rescue of 1983.
"I'd like very, very much to erase the last three years of my life," he said. "The obituary is going to be, 'He was an ex-con, a felon,' not anything I've done as a legislator. It'll be, 'He was convicted of misuse of government funds. He gave chairs and ashtrays away.' "
From Chairman to Inmate
In prison, he shared a room with two other men, rose at 6 a.m. every day and reported to his new job, a tedious assignment recording the pressure readings on boiler room gauges every two hours. Rostenkowski recalled with sarcasm: "I'd sit there biting my nails hoping the gauges would go to 70."
He accepted no visitors other than his lawyer and his biographer -- not even LaVerne, Rostenkowski said, because he could not bear for her or his four grown daughters to see him in prison. He fought boredom by keeping tabs on national politics, maintaining meticulous files of newspaper clippings and watching the Sunday morning news shows. He would arrive at the TV room early, before the channel could be switched to "Soul Train."
One day, he found himself railing against a public affairs commentator taking what he viewed as a dumb position on Social Security reform. He turned to the other inmates watching, and said, much the way he used to as the chairman of Ways and Means, "OK, now here's the facts." Blank expressions stared back at him. "They could care less," Rostenkowski said he realized.
In the evenings, he wrote letters, including a few to President Clinton advising him on Medicare and Social Security policy. He also read. Though always a reluctant and slow reader, in prison he absorbed biographies of political idols Harry S Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and John Marshall. He also tried popular books, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes," an autobiographical account of an Irish family's struggle with the poverty wrought by the father's alcoholism. Though it was a hit with yuppie book groups, Rostenkowski was less than impressed. "Those people drank too much," he said dismissively.
He lost 60 pounds, partly because of his ill health in the early stages of his imprisonment and later with a new health regimen that included four-mile walks in the facility's exercise yard.
Fellow inmates who sought Rostenkowski out with problems found him helpful in showing them how to apply for Pell grants to attend school after their release or how to navigate other parts of the federal bureaucracy.
But he befriended few, keeping mostly to himself. He was a compliant prisoner, except for one incident that earned him a depressing three-day stay in solitary confinement for insolence. Rostenkowski, angry at his inability to get anyone to consider a sentence reduction, got into a heated argument with a caseworker and called the man an off-color name. "They gave me no breaks at all," he said. "Other people would have been home two months before I got home. I was a high profile prisoner, and all the decisions were being made in Washington."
Though he is not the type to talk much about his feelings, Rostenkowski is a masterly storyteller who can reveal much with a simple, streetwise anecdote. During one of his daily walks, he recalled, he struck up a conversation with a 17-year-old who was serving 18 years for delivering packages of cocaine to New York for drug dealers.
"I said to him, 'You're going to be nearly 40 years old when you get out of here. Now I'm the judge and I say you're out in nine months. But if I ever catch you again, you come back here and you do the rest of your time. What would you do?' He says, 'Oh Christ, I don't want to come back here.' He's a cleancut kid. A good-looking young man. He says, 'You know, Mr. Congressman, I don't think that's a good deal.' I said, 'Why?' He says, 'I'll get back to you.' "
Two weeks later, the two met again in the recreation yard. "You remember me?" the kid asked. "Sure," Rostenkowski replied, "You're 18 Years." In reconsidering the imaginary proposition, the young man said, he thought he should get a sentence of at least one year.
"Everybody who goes to jail should go through a whole year of all the seasons, including Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and summer," he said. Why? Rostenkowski asked. "Because those are the times when you really suffer," the young man replied.
Rostenkowski ends the story this way: "Punishment is grotesque if you're a good Catholic father or son at Christmastime. To have your parents or your children or your mother or father come up and visit you at that time of year, you know the heartache that they're experiencing while you're incarcerated."
Tentative Steps Back
Leaving a halfway house in October, Rostenkowski sought safe haven in the old neighborhood where he and his father grew up, in a house his grandfather built just down the street from the school Rostenkowski attended as a kid, St. Stanislaus Kostka. He has maintained his home and political base in the house and adjoining storefront all these years, as the area changed from Polish immigrant to Hispanic immigrant to yuppie rehabber. "I felt like I should live where the people I represented lived," he said.
His new start at age 70 includes a more healthful diet of fewer of his beloved rare steaks, less alcohol and a commitment to the workouts he began in prison. He accepts most invitations to speak to classes at Chicago-area universities, he said, because he likes the idea of inspiring young people to get involved in public affairs.
His entry into consulting has been a more awkward adjustment. "I don't even really know how to bill people," he said. "People in the business say to me, 'Did you talk to him? Well, send him the bill.' And I say, 'No, I want to do something for him first.' . . . I never realized the price that was set for a visit to my office."
Rostenkowski has received encouragement from old friends such as former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore. (1969-95), who was driven from office by a sexual harassment scandal, and his onetime political protege, Tony Coelho (1979-89), the former House Democratic whip who left office under the cloud of financial scandal.
Both men have begun successful new careers in Washington, and they say that Rostenkowski is going through a painful process that they too experienced.
"You feel like you don't want to embarrass your friends," Packwood said. "And you worry that they will turn you down, that they don't want to be seen with you. You think the whole world is watching you, and what you eventually learn is that the whole world is not watching you, and what's more, most people could care less."
Coelho said the first thing Rostenkowski has to get over is embarrassment. "He's a very proud man," Coelho said of his former mentor. "It's personal embarrassment -- 'Have I let my people down, my city, my friends, my family?'
"Danny has to understand what his value is, and if he does, he can be extremely successful. For most people, the difficulty of Washington is figuring out how to make the system work for you. If you have been a leader, the assumption is, and it is a correct one, that you know how to successfully work the system."
Rostenkowski is also an old hand at talking the talk in Washington. He has a mental encyclopedia of entertaining stories about the high and mighty.
"See that picture?" Rostenkowski said, pointing to a photograph of him, LaVerne, President George Bush and Barbara Bush chatting in the private residence of the White House. The president's dog is parked comfortably on the rug.
The inscription from Bush playfully reads: "To Dan and LaVerne, Watch out for that dog . . . oops. Anyway, welcome, welcome, welcome."
Rostenkowski completes the story: The dog took liberties with his pant leg that evening, but Bush made it up to him later. "Come on over," Bush called to say one day. "I got rid of the dog."
Decades Of Experience
Although he eventually would like to open a satellite office in Washington, Rostenkowski said he will continue to be based in Chicago and will not become a lobbyist. He said he would be uncomfortable asking former colleagues for favors, especially those who were junior to him when he served, which now includes everyone in Congress except Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich.
Rather, he said, he thinks he can market his skills at navigating the system, understanding the political climate of the moment and estimating the best approaches to use with lawmakers. Rostenkowski is taking slow re-entry steps. He has done few interviews and has made only two brief appearances on television.
He said his contribution to politics now will be to provide a dose of pragmatism that was a hallmark of his era but has been devalued by a younger crop of more ideological lawmakers.
"I think what I symbolize is realism," said Rostenkowski, who has little use for today's poll-driven, television-centric politics. "Today, everyone is using catchwords, taking polls and blow-drying their hair. What happened to trying to be sensible?"
Like any veteran politician, Rostenkowski also knows the kind of tricks that can be learned only from a few decades of on-the-job training.
During the Herculean efforts to get a health care system overhaul off the ground in Clinton's first term, Rostenkowski recalled, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned to say she wanted to meet with the House Democratic Caucus for two hours. "I'm going to announce that you are going to be with us for 45 minutes," Rostenkowski told the no-doubt mystified Clinton, who was heading the administration's health care effort.
When, during the intense caucus discussions with the first lady, the allotted time elapsed, Rostenkowski announced that she had agreed to stay 20 minutes more. When that period elapsed, he prolonged the meeting for 15 minutes, then 15 minutes more after that, until, all told, Clinton had been with the caucus for two hours.
"You knew all along I would be there for two hours," Clinton remarked to Rostenkowski as he walked her to her car.
"What you did," Rostenkowski recalled telling her, "was to make everyone in that room feel important."
"Brilliant," the first lady said to him.
"No," he replied. "Practical."
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.