Dan Rostenkowski predicted that his obituaries would call him a felon.
It's true, but that’s not all they’re saying. They’re also calling him a ward hack, a “lion of the legislature” and a kindly old man who helped an alcoholic get his life back on track. Whether journalists are remembering him well or ill depends on their tolerance for traditional Chicago politics.
The Chicago Reader, whose independent leanings are inimical to Rostenkowski’s Machine upbringing, preferred to recall how the congressman re-wrote the tax code to favor the wealthy, defended Merc traders who stuffed his coffers with campaign contributions and profited personally from the construction of Presidential Towers, the West Loop apartment complex which took the place of SROs for the poor. Here, Ben Joravsky remembers Rostenkowski’s Northwest Side political operation:
Rostenkowski and [Ald. Terry] Gabinski controlled their villagers with the stick of brute force and fearmongering and the carrot of services like garbage collection and snow removal. On election day they sent out thick-necked patronage workers to lurk outside polling places, passing out palm cards and intimidating the locals so they wouldn’t stray from the fold. If intimidation didn’t work, there was always the race card. During the 1983 mayoral race, Rostenkowski and Gabinski put their support behind every white candidate who ran against Harold Washington—even a Republican, Bernie Epton. It was their way of letting the little people know they weren’t going to let the blacks take over.
In the Sun-Times, Mark Brown -- another good-government type who doesn’t have roots in Chicago -- recalled Rostenkowski’s crimes, as a way of reminding readers that he had contributed to the congressman’s downfall. Brown was a member of the investigative team that looked into Rostenkowski’s finances. Here’s what they found:
While the Sun-Times played a role in exposing some of the ghost payrollers, our biggest contribution to the case was unearthing a scheme in which Rostenkowski bought three cars for himself using his congressional expense allowance by disguising them as leases for "mobile offices." Prosecutors said the cars cost taxpayers $73,500.
The fourth prong of the case involved Rostenkowski billing $42,200 to his congressional expense account for gifts to friends, including chairs, luggage and china bearing the official congressional seal. We heard we did a better job than the FBI in tracking down the loot.
But Michael Sneed, who is eager to forgive any disgraced politician (and just as eager to get an exclusive jailhouse interview), remembered Rostenkowski as “the lion of the legislature” and “the heroic deficit buster/budget negotiator of the 1980s,” and boasted of dining with him at Myron & Phil’s. Sneed printed this previously untold anecdote, courtesy of Ald. Terry Gabinski:
“Rosty and his old buddy, the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, went to Russia to meet with Gorbachev. They spent a couple of hours with him and when they got back -- were subsequently summoned to the White House by President Ronald Reagan for an evening debriefing.
“After a while, Danny looks at Tip and says: ‘Tip, I think he's sleeping!’ “Tip says: ‘I know he's sleeping! What do we do now?’
“Tip and Danny couldn't leave and they didn’t want to embarrass the president by waking him up . . . so they decided to wait until he woke up. When he did, they acted as if nothing had happened, but vowed then and there not to tell that story.”
I liked Dick Daley, and I liked the way that he was running the city. We had what was then called an organization; you call it a machine. [Richard M.] surprises me. I didn’t think he’d be good [as mayor] at all. I didn’t think that he had the ability. Richie Daley is a very physical mayor. He wants you to see his mayorship—the flowers [on Michigan Avenue], et cetera.
Probably the best Rostenkowski story, though, is Bryan Smith’s tale of how the old pol rented an apartment to an overweight, alcoholic 34-year-old loser who’d just been kicked out of his parents’ house, and helped him turn his life around. It’s in this month’s Chicago magazine: