Remembering Rosty

Former congressman Dan Rostenkowski in 1998. Chicago Tribune-MCT-Landov

The setting, a legendary Chicago steakhouse, was pure Rosty.

I'd imagined him striding through the restaurant, pushing past the favor-seekers and acolytes, stopping to schmooze impressed diners. But it was a much-diminished Dan Rostenkowski who'd recently emerged from 13 months in the federal penitentiary. He'd lost 50 pounds in the pen and seemed tentative, averting his eyes as if hoping not to be noticed. Rosty had agreed to sit down with me and my NEWSWEEK colleague Evan Thomas for his first post-prison interview, but he was reluctant and wary. He didn't have his customary thick steak and martini; instead, without much gusto, he ordered a piece of fish and a nonalcoholic beer.

During dinner, Rostenkowski was, by turns, defiant and defeated. He refused to acknowledge he'd done anything seriously wrong, but then lamented that he'd probably be remembered for "those frigging stamps." Mostly, Rosty was prideful. He never allowed his wife, LaVerne, to visit him behind bars; he didn't want her to see him in prison garb. He ruefully referred to his incarceration as his "Oxford education." (The federal correctional facility was in Oxford, Wis.) He told us that when he agreed to speak publicly he demanded an audience of at least 100 people; he didn't went to be embarrassed by a small turnout.

A creature of the old Chicago machine, Rosty had been caught off guard by new ethical rules of the '90s, the high-water mark of the special prosecutor and the Washington scandal machine. Having just turned 70, he was bitter about the changing times and what he perceived to be decaying values. Rostenkowski sneered at the blow-dried politicians who cared more about posturing on TV than legislative achievements. "Congressmen these days care too much about appearances and not enough about getting things done," he harrumphed.

As the dinner went on, Rosty was reminded of some of the things he had done, things that sometimes made a real difference in the lives of his constituents. A young African-American man approached the table and thanked the ex-congressman for finding his dad a job when he'd fallen on hard times. Another man praised Rosty for taking on the functionaries at the Social Security Administration on behalf of his grandmother. The stories lifted Rosty's spirits and, for a bit, revived his feistiness. He mocked Newt Gingrich as a moral poseur for ending the practice of delivering buckets of ice to congressional offices in the evenings. One congressman waved around an ice bucket as a symbol of corruption. "If he came into my district," Rosty growled, "I'd kick his ass."

Notwithstanding the bouts of self-pity, Rosty might have had a point about recognizing some of the virtues of the old ways. No question, he broke the public trust by putting ghost employees on his payroll and using taxpayer money to reward supporters. But it was mostly penny-ante stuff; not a lot of evidence emerged that he was lining his pockets. And Rosty's downfall marked an end of an era in Washington when politicians were willing to sacrifice ideological triumph for the common good. In the '80s, Ronald Reagan used to have Democratic and Republican members over to the White House for drinks every couple of months—usually when Nancy was away.

One time, Reagan greeted Rosty with a Campari, not the cocktail of choice on Chicago's Northwest Side. "If you don't have any gin, I'll go out and buy some," he told the president. Nursing his fake beer that evening at Gene & Georgetti, Rosty arrived at the moral of his story. After drinks, he and Reagan got down to business. That was the start of tax reform, his signature legislative achievement.