CHICAGO, ROSTY'S KIND OF TOWN
It's the waiting, you keep thinking. That's what will wear on Congressman Danny Rostenkowski, at least until the cell door finally closes.
But I find it hard to understand all the frenzy. Sure, the government lawyers, all decked out in their nice, conservative suits, are bent on destroying him. But isn't that what government lawyers do for a living?
The real question is this: What has Rostenkowski been charged with doing that hasn't been public policy in Chicago for at least 100 years? Read the indictment. Even if it's entirely true, you can see that Rostenkowski has merely been engaging in the same honored practices of Chicago politicians that date from the fabled days of Mayor Big Bill Thompson, who once publicly declared that the King of England should go to hell.
Mayor Richard J. Daley once explained the general doctrine succinctly: "If you can't help your friends, who should you help? Your enemies?"
It is a social climate in which you press on and don't look back. Alderman Paddy Bauler once invited Herman Kogan, the book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, to go to Germany with him for the first great beer festival following World War II.
Kogan, who was Jewish, demurred. He pointed out that the Nazi death camps had left him with a permanent aversion to vacations in the Fatherland.
"Oh, Herman," Alderman Bauler said, "can't you let bygones be bygones?"
There was the time when Mayor Daley gave one of his sons, then in his 20s, some city insurance business that was worth several million dollars. The do-gooders went berserk over this blatant display of favoritism.
Daley handled them the only way a politician from the old school should. He stood up before a crowded press conference and brayed with great dignity:
"Anyone who doesn't like it can kiss my mistletoe."
@body:Congressman Danny's sins turn out to be nothing more than standard practice in Chicago. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a headline about "ghost payrollers" in a Chicago newspaper, I would never have to work another day.
There are a thousand stories about Chicago politics and what outside viewers deem to be corruption. Chicagoans pay no attention. Life goes on. Nothing changes.
Let me tell you about Alderman Vito Marzullo. He was virtually illiterate, but became such an expert on the arcane ways of Chicago politics that he was invited to Harvard to lecture on the subject. The lecture was an astonishing success. Marzullo proved more interesting to those Harvard undergraduates than Henry James or Herman Melville, guys who came from the Cambridge neighborhood.
Marzullo was the personification of the tough-talking, iron-fisted Chicago pol. He was short and squat and wore a perpetual scowl. He looked like he might be Danny DeVito's old man. I took to dropping by Marzullo's ward office on the southwest side of the city whenever I was low on material for a column. We got along famously. Marzullo never cared what I wrote. He was confident he was too powerful to be hurt. Besides, he loved seeing his name in print. His formal schooling consisted of just a few years in his native Italy, so the niceties of the English language never concerned him.
Marzullo never ducked a question. He always had an opinion, and it was almost always--by normal standards--outrageous.
One day, I asked him about the charges that Chicago police were brutalizing black citizens. "They only do it when they have to," Marzullo shot back.
He went on to explain why no amount of unfavorable newspaper stories could endanger his hold on the voters of his 25th Ward.
"You see," Marzullo shot at me in his broken accent, "I ain't got no 'axles' to grind. You could take all your news media and all the do-gooders in Chicago and move them into my 25th Ward. "You know what would happen? "On election day, we'd beat you 15 to 1."
Visiting Marzullo's ward office was like going to the lair of a bandit chieftain. Strange, exotic types kept filtering in and out. There was much whispering in corners. There was also the occasional burst of anger followed by wild threats of violence. Marzullo explained how he kept his troops in line.
"Who wants somebody working for him who ain't gonna fight for the policies of his leader?" Marzullo asked.
"If I'm the boss, and you don't do what I want, I fire you. What the hell's wrong with that?
"Time and again, the do-gooders want to make a federal case out of things. But the news media and the do-gooders don't run my 25th Ward. "Me. Vito Marzullo. That's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day, everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them."
At that time, the black population of Marzullo's political empire was a little more than 30 percent. But the blacks had absolutely no voice.
One night, a black group formed a delegation and went to see Marzullo in his office. Marzullo boasted about how it turned out:
"These guys come in to tell me they got demands to make. 'You got demands to make?' I say. 'Who's your precinct captain?'
"They tell me they're acting for themselves and that they represent more than 3,000 black residents.
"You make no goddamn demands to this old man,' I told them. 'Who died and elected you guys boss?
"I'm the elected boss. You get out, you sons of bitches, and don't come back.'"
Marzullo put his hands on his belly and smiled contentedly. Suddenly, he turned all cozy and warm.
Then Marzullo said, "Sometimes, I feel just like goddamn Abraham Lincoln. He's the one who said you can only fool some of the people some of the time, right?
"But my people . . . they got confidence in Vito Marzullo all of the time."
@body:Alderman Charley Weber was one of the last Chicago aldermen to operate a saloon and use it as his ward office. He had an enlightened theory about how much money to pay for services in his ward.
Weber openly paid money to volunteers to get out the vote. But he knew that even his friends would steal from him when they got the chance. A man would come in and ask for $200. Weber would look him in the eye and say: "Better still, here's $400. And make sure you do the best job you can."
Visitors to Weber's headquarters saw him do this time and again. He always paid double what he was asked.
One day, Weber explained his theory: "You give a guy $200 and you know he's gonna put the first hundred in his pocket. Then he'll have only $100 left to drop here and there. When I give him $400, that means he puts $200 in his pocket but there's still another $200 to pass around the ward."
@body:You cannot understand how real life can become until you mix with a Chicago alderman for a while.
I remember going out to the home of Alderman Wallace C. Davis in the 27th Ward. He had been accused by the FBI of taking a $1,500 bribe from an undercover man.
But Davis had a hell of an explanation, and I believed him.
"I'd never take that money, because I got plenty of my own money," Davis said.
He explained how he earned his fortune. Davis was running two auto-body shops and a barbecue restaurant, and one night, he heard a burglar in the restaurant.
Davis called the police. When the police came, they thought Davis was the burglar, and he could not dissuade them.
"They told me to spread eagle on the car I was driving. I did as I was told.
"I heard one of the cops say about me, 'This one's too tall to bring in. Let's shoot him.'"
The bullet went into Davis' back. "The next thing I remember is that I was on my back, and the cop has the gun between my eyes, and he's saying, 'Die, nigger, die.'"
"Before they took me to the hospital, they stole my watch, my wallet with $347 in it and my ring."
Davis was paralyzed for seven months, and he went from 224 pounds to 97. He sued and settled out of court for $300,000.
This was not the only brush Davis' family had with the authorities. His brother was shot to death while on a visit to Louisiana. By the time Davis got there, his brother was already in a coffin. Davis thought the coffin was too short to contain his brother's six-foot, six-inch body.
The funeral director refused to let him check the body. Davis got a court order. Sure enough, they had amputated his brother's legs and thrown them in the garbage to accommodate his body in the short coffin.
@body:It takes a while to get used to stories like this.
Chicago is a city permanently attuned to violence, financial shenanigans and corruption on all levels and of all sorts. It has become a way of life, so that blame is no longer attributable in the normal sense. It is simply the way people interact with one another.
A few years back, there was a big scandal over judges shaking down money from lawyers who appeared before them on a regular basis. The judge would simply call the lawyer into his office and tell him he needed a quick loan. The lawyer would run to his bank and bring it back--in cash.
I was in federal court the day a lawyer named Ernest Worsek told how he had given a loan of $15,000 to Judge Reginald Holzer. A little later, Holzer hit the lawyer up for another $10,000 and still later for another $10,000. Soon after that, Worsek was summoned to Judge Holzer's chambers again. Holzer told the lawyer that the judge's wife was now selling insurance and that Worsek would buy a $1 million policy from her.
"I was up the creek," Worsek said. "I couldn't offend him. I had loans I couldn't afford, a life-insurance policy I couldn't afford, and he wasn't paying any of the money back."
Then, one day, federal agents came to Worsek's office and told him they were on to Holzer's scheme. Worsek called Holzer on the phone and warned him.
Holzer told him to come into the office, that they must talk. Worsek explained what happened next.
"We went underground," he said. "We wrote everything on sheets of paper and passed them back and forth. The judge was afraid the office was bugged."
"What happened to the notes after you were finished with them?" the prosecutor asked.
"The judge took them," Worsek said. "He tore them up, and then he flushed them down the toilet."
@body:You could never understand why Rostenkowski thinks the way he does about government unless you went to Chicago and spent some time in his Polish neighborhood around Damen, Division and North avenues.
Rostenkowski grew up in this predominantly Polish area of the city. His father reigned as the alderman for 20 years. So the young Rostenkowski was raised as a Polish prince, heir apparent to all the spoils the Democratic machine had to offer. His first job was as an assistant to his father in the ward office. He has never held a real job for pay outside politics.
He rose from being a gofer for his old man to being a prime golfing partner with the lobbyists for big corporations like General Electric. He has become a powerful deal maker. More than anyone except Ronald Reagan, Rostenkowski is responsible for the 1981 tax cut that decimated the middle class and comforted the very rich of this country.
He grew up in this grimy section of the city split by a grotesque, winding set of El tracks that leave the adjacent streets shrouded in perpetual shadow. It's too cold in winter, and you have to fight with your fists to preserve your parking spot on the street when it snows. It's too hot in summer. You are considered affluent if you have a window air conditioner in your bedroom. The great gathering places are the Busy Bee restaurant, the Luxor Baths and a dozen or so shot-and-a-beer taverns.
Danny Rostenkowski has been a member of Congress since 1958. By gradual steps, he has become increasingly arrogant, corpulent and bellicose. He is an underdog, but he will be hard to like when he comes to trial.
Because of the tax laws he helped to push through, American companies began firing people and building new plants overseas. This is the man who pretends to be a friend of the people? This is the same man who took all the money from the big horse-racing interests and then wrote new tax laws for them that saved their industry. But Congressman Danny is not likable. He is a big, noisy and arrogant man who drinks too much in public and gets noisier and more arrogant by the glass. Slip him enough drinks over lunch at Eli's Steak House on Chicago Avenue, and he'll tell you what it's like to deal with the Jews and the Shines back in Washington, D.C. Congressman Danny is the ultimate Polack. But right now, he's still on his feet, hiring new lawyers and spoiling for the ultimate showdown in a courtroom.
I have been to dozens of those quaint meetings of the Democratic party of Cook County in Chicago, where they always smiled upon "Congressman Danny."
Mayor Richard J. Daley, then an aging bull, and Rostenkowski, then a rising political star, circled each other respectfully.
I remember a meeting at which the Democratic ward bosses voted unanimously that Daley would once again be their candidate for mayor. That they actually held a vote was remarkable in itself. Who else would they vote for if not Daley?
Applause exploded through the crowd, which included at least 20 members of the Democratic machine destined to serve jail time in the future for stealing money.
Mayor Daley, red-faced and ebullient, bolted up from his chair to return Rostenkowski's salutation.
"I'm proud of Congressman Danny," Daley said in his flat, Chicago accent. "I've known him since he was a boy, and now he's one of the great leaders of the Congress. He makes me feel like I had some participation. I know he's going to go even further in politics, too."
And now Danny Rostenkowski has reached what might be the end of the line. It is the same bend in the road so many Chicago Democratic officeholders have reached over the years. One of these days, we may see television footage of "Congressman Danny" reporting to one of those minimum-security prisons where the inmates read books, play tennis and refrain from heavy lifting or drinking. For them, it's like going to the Betty Ford Clinic.
@body:But strange political ethics are not confined to Chicago. Politicians are like this all over. They are all warped in some way. Paul Powell was probably the most famous tightwad.
Powell served as Illinois secretary of state for many years before succumbing to a heart attack. He had spent most of his political career residing in a cheap hotel that sat across from the train station in Springfield, the Illinois state capital.
When they cleaned out Powell's hotel room, they found several shoeboxes on the floor of his closet. Upon opening these boxes, they were astonished to find them jam-packed with cash. The announced amount was $800,000. The search continued. Eventually, they found that Powell had hoarded more than $2 million.
I drove down to Springfield to seek out people who knew Powell. I remember a Mrs. Eva Murdock, a 57-year-old maid who had cleaned Powell's hotel room for years. In their final meeting, Mrs. Murdock approached Powell to solicit a donation for her church.
She remembered that Powell pulled out a thick roll of bills and gave her a big smile.
"I guess I can spare a dollar," Powell said to Mrs. Murdock, and handed it over with a flourish. Powell left the room but quickly came back. There was the remains of a fruitcake on his bedside table.
"Eva," Powell said, handing her the cake, "why don't you take this fruitcake home with my best wishes and enjoy it."
Mrs. Murdock recalled, somewhat disgustedly, that Powell had already taken two bites out of the cake.
One of Powell's great political allies was Orville Hodge, the state auditor. Hodge became famous in Illinois politics when it was discovered that he had embezzled millions from the state to support his grand lifestyle.
Hodge lived in the penthouse of the same hotel where Powell resided. Powell, who did not like to spend money on clothes, could frequently be seen wearing Hodge's hand-me-down shirts with the monograms "O.H." on the cuffs.
I remember encountering Powell's hotel bellman, Bill Nieroff, then in his late 50s.
"How big a tipper was Mr. Powell?" I asked Nieroff. He turned up his nose.
"I used to take Mr. Powell's bags to the train station across the street every weekend that he took the train home," the bellman said.
"For doing that practically every week and for countless other favors that he was always demanding, I could count on Mr. Powell giving me a $2 tip--every Christmas!"
@body:There's a well-known story that the late Congressman Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill used to tell about campaigning with John F. Kennedy that pretty well sums it all up.
They had a fund-raising breakfast, and Tip and JFK were in the john together. Tip said to Kennedy, "I've got $2,000 in cash and $6,000 in checks. What do you want me to do with it?"
Kennedy said, "Give me the two grand and give the checks to the treasurer."
Tip says to Kennedy, "You know, it's a funny thing about politics. It doesn't matter if you're running for alderman or president. It's all the same racket, isn't it?
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