A LESSON IN HOW POWER CORRUPTS
I sat there watching Congressman Dan Rostenkowski proclaim his innocence of all wrongdoing.
Everybody in Chicago calls him "Rosty." Very few people now alive remember when Rosty wasn't the congressman from the 8th Congressional District who lived in the family home in the 32nd Ward--the Polish ward.
In Chicago, that's Milwaukee Avenue and St. Hyacinth parish, where many people still speak Polish.
He was the man former mayor Richard J. Daley, "King Richard," as some called Daley, had picked for the seat at age 30. Before that, Rosty had been in the Illinois legislature from the age of 24.
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Joe Rostenkowski, Dan's father, was a Chicago alderman for 20 years. So it was in Dan's blood. Rosty doesn't remember when he wasn't around people who created the laws that everyone else has to live by.
I remembered Rosty standing before a group of reporters in the Hilton Hotel in Chicago in 1986, explaining his arrest for drunk driving.
"We're tired of being chased," one of Rosty's men said earlier. "We want to get this off our chest."
Rosty strode up the opulent hotel staircase with the thick, red carpeting to the room with the marble floors where the press conference was to be held. He looked very important and equally impatient. He wanted to get this minor annoyance out of the way.
Big and beefy, Rosty reminded me of Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in The Untouchables.
There were five violinists on the wide, circular stairs. They were playing "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" for a reception being held in another room. Rosty, the accomplished pol, shook hands all the way into the room where the media people were waiting.
Then his face turned stone cold and he stepped quickly to the mic. He read a brief statement from a piece of paper:
"I overdid my 40th high school reunion celebration. This has been a painful lesson for me. It is one I won't forget. I hope it serves as a strong warning to others." Rosty had been stopped for drunk driving on his way back to Chicago from the party, which had been held in Wisconsin.
I wondered who had written his apology. Whose idea was it to add that last line: "I hope it serves as a strong warning to others"?
"Are you contrite about it?" a reporter asked.
"What does that mean?" Rosty asked in return.
"Are you gonna stop drinking, or what?" asked another.
Rosty fixed the reporter with a scowl.
"I don't think I'll drive if I'm going to drink," Rosty said.
Nobody laughed. And the press conference ended on that note.
Rosty is now about to be accused of bending the rules to his own advantage in the House Post Office scandal. Maybe what he has become is not totally his fault. He doesn't understand. He has been at the vital center so long he thinks that everything should go his way.
It must seem to him now that he has always been powerful. Twenty-six years is too long for any man to be in Washington, D.C., pulling the levers for the rest of us.
His blunt nature, once considered refreshing, is now perceived as arrogance. He used to look people in the eye and tell them off. Then, it was considered courageous. Now he seems to be a bully.
There was the time in 1963 when he came under fire for paying traffic tickets for his constituents out of Democratic party funds.
There were the jobs given to his three daughters at the Chicago Board of Trade. They were good jobs, rendered even more attractive because the young ladies were not required to work for the paychecks they received.
Nobody was surprised. That's the way things work in Chicago.
As Rosty once said:
"In my hometown of Chicago, they call politics a 'blood sport.' I don't apologize for getting in the arena, and I'll be damned if I'll apologize for winning."
But now he seems suspicious of all around him. Is this a Polish trait, or is it the natural reaction of a career pol who senses he is being hunted down?
The indictment, when it comes in a week or two, will seem penny ante. Perhaps it will grow into something more. There is the hint that it will also involve misuse of campaign funds.
The New York Times calls it an "embezzlement scandal." The newspaper said in an editorial that Rostenkowski "rendered himself unfit for a leadership post a year ago when he refused to testify before a grand jury looking into the possibility of corruption in the House of Representatives."
At the least, Rosty will be accused of ripping off several thousand dollars from the House Post Office in a stamp exchange.
How do you figure this from a man who could have retired from Congress a year ago and walked away with a million dollars in unspent campaign contributions?
He has had many moments in the limelight, not all of them glorious.
It was Rosty who leaped to the podium at the Democratic convention in 1968 to gavel down the antiwar speakers.
Over the years, he has been the most important politician Chicago had in Washington. It was Rosty who brought the all-important pork back home.
Rosty brought $225 million for a massive reconstruction of the city's Kennedy Expressway. There was an additional $21.3 million for a new Chicago transit system and an airline passenger tax that will finance millions in improvements at O'Hare and Midway airports.
If Rosty goes down, President Clinton will miss him sorely, because he is Clinton's point man in the House of Representatives.
But Chicago will miss him a lot more. In our time, there never will be another Rosty.
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