CHICAGO — With his rumpled suits and gruff, growling voice, former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was far more comfortable behind closed doors than in front of the camera or behind a podium.
Rostenkowski left speeches to others, but he quietly wielded enormous power on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years, becoming one of the most powerful lawmakers of his time — and a potent symbol of Washington’s excesses after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
When Rostenkowski died Wednesday of lung cancer at age 82, those who knew him recalled a meat-and potatoes politician from an era that doesn’t exist anymore, when leaders crossed party lines to cut deals and seek consensus, and when a young man from Chicago’s Northwest Side could grow up to shape the national agenda as head of a congressional committee. Today most of that power rests with the House speaker.
“He was the go-to guy for (Chicago) mayors,” former Secretary of Commerce William Daley said, citing his father, the late Richard J. Daley, and his brother, current Mayor Richard M. Daley. “You didn’t go the senators. You went to Danny.”
In the years after his conviction on corruption charges, Rostenkowski lamented that his legacy would always be tainted by spending nearly 1 years in federal prison.
“I know that my obituary will say, ’Dan Rostenkowski, felon,’ and it is something that I have to live with,’” he said in a 1998 broadcast interview with Robert Novak and Mark Shields.
In Rostenkowski’s 18 terms in Congress and his time as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, much of the legislation that emerged from Washington carried his fingerprints. He was credited with leading the 1983 effort to rescue Social Security from insolvency and pushing through a sweeping 1986 overhaul of the nation’s tax system.
Back home, where he emerged from the Chicago Democratic Machine, Rostenkowski brought in millions of federal dollars for public works projects, including improvements to the Kennedy Expressway, the transformation of Navy Pier on Chicago’s downtown lakefront into a recreational area, and the construction of a train line to the city’s biggest airport.
“He probably did more for Illinois and Chicago in particular than any person that’s ever represented the state,” said former Sen. Alan Dixon, whose friendship with Rostenkowski dated back to 1951, when they were both state legislators.
Biographer Richard Cohen once wrote that Rostenkowski was “among the half dozen most influential members of Congress during the second half of the 20th century.”
Rostenkowski was at once a tough politician who called Chicago politics a “blood sport,” and a master at the disappearing art of political compromise. So even as he fought battles on behalf of Mayor Richard J. Daley back home, the staunch Democrat worked closely with President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush in Washington.
“We were going to work together,” he once said. “We were going to get something done. We were Democrats and Republicans, but we were also legislators.”
As chairman, Rostenkowski opposed protectionist trade legislation and played a key role in pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Rostenkowski won praise for driving the 1986 tax overhaul legislation. In a dramatic gesture designed to focus attention on the issue, he went on national television and urged viewers to write to him with their own views on how the nation’s tax laws could be improved.
He told them that if they had trouble spelling his name, all they had to do was “write Rosty” in Washington.
The bill Reagan finally signed into law eliminated numerous loopholes.
Former House Republican leader Robert Michel of Peoria, Ill., said he and Rostenkowski differed on all sorts of issues. That didn’t stop the two men from being close enough friends to drive on trips from Washington to Chicago and back, or get work together.
“In those days, let’s face it, there was a different chemistry than there is today. We were opposite parties but ... not enemies,” Michel said.
Rostenkowski’s career started to unravel in 1992, when a Washington grand jury charged him with 17 counts of misusing government and campaign funds.
The scandal forced him to step down as chairman and led to his 1994 defeat by Republican unknown Michael Patrick Flanagan, who became the first GOP congressman from Chicago in 35 years.
In the end, Rostenkowski pleaded guilty two counts of mail fraud. He admitted in his plea agreement that he had converted office funds to his own use for gifts such as Lenox china and armchairs.
He admitted hiring people on his congressional payroll who did little or no official work — but took care of his lawn, took photographs at political events and family weddings, helped his family’s business and supervised the renovation of his house.
Rostenkowski served 17 months in prison, mainly at the federal government’s correctional center at Oxford, Wis. After his release, he spoke to a prison reform group and joked about “my Oxford education.”
“Congress changed in a sense, and he didn’t,” Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said of Rostenkowski’s misuse of office funds. “That was probably his biggest weakness.”
Rostenkowski’s ouster was part of a Republican sweep that returned the GOP to power in both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s. (Flanagan served just one term before being ousted by then-Democratic state Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who later became governor — and was ousted from office in his own scandal in January 2009.)
In 2000, President Bill Clinton pardoned Rostenkowski. Two prominent Republicans, former President Gerald R. Ford and former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel were among those urging the pardon.
Rostenkowski had no use for preening politicians who found cameras the way moths find light bulbs. He defended a more old-fashioned approach.
“As much as people criticize the back room, the dark room, or the cigar or smoke-filled room, you get things done when you’re not acting,” he once told an interviewer. In his day, he said, “we’d argue like hell on the floor of the House of Representatives but we were out playing golf that night.”
Daniel David Rostenkowski was born Jan. 2, 1928, into one of Chicago’s leading Polish-American political families. His father was an alderman.
Rostenkowski was educated at St. John’s Academy, a Wisconsin military school, and Loyola University in Chicago. He served in the infantry in Korea from 1946 to 1948. He was a state representative and later a state senator before his election to the U.S. House in 1958.
Although Rostenkowski acknowledged the blemish of his corruption conviction, he hoped his legislative achievements would endure.
“I think the epitaph I’d like to see, even on my gravestone, would be, ’He wrote good law,’” Rostenkowski said. “That it was fair.”