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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 248

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This is the grave of Dan Rostenkowski.

Born in 1928 in Chicago to a Polish immigrant family, Rostenkowski grew up in politics. His father was a ward captain and that meant machine politics. He was around local politics his entire life and really, that’s who he was. He went to a military academy in Wisconsin for his high school years, joined the army for a couple of years, then returned to Chicago, where he went to Loyola. He wanted to play baseball and was pretty good. Connie Mack invited him to tryout for the As. But there was only one possible career for a Rostenkowski–politician–and his father refused to allow him to play profession ball. In 1952, still a college student, he ran for a seat in the Illinois legislature and won. He served one term and then moved to the state Senate. He really wanted a big job in Chicago, maybe even mayor someday. That wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, but he was close to Mayor Daley, who agreed that a better path for the young man would be a run for Congress, which happened from a very safe district in 1958. He then became perhaps the most powerful member of Congress ever from Chicago.

Rostenkowski was a very skilled inside political player. He knew how to court the right mentors, which legislation to support, and who to back in the end. He became close to the Kennedys right away and remained a key congressional ally and personal friend. He got to join the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 1964 and became head of the House Democratic caucus in 1966, being reelected to that position in 1968. His voting record in these years was pretty liberal, not just for a Chicago politician but sometimes in the face of the growing conservatism of white voters from eastern European backgrounds. So he remained supportive of the War on Poverty and civil rights programs into the late 60s, even as his district began turning on them. He also supported the Vietnam War in its early years, only finally turning against it in 1971. Being very close to Lyndon Johnson was a good thing for him mostly, but during the disastrous 1968 DNC, Johnson was furious that Carl Albert, House Majority Leader at the time, could not control the floor. He called Rostenkowski personally, told him to take over and quiet the delegates. Rostenkowski did this, but also made a lifelong enemy of Albert, who exiled him once he became Speaker later that year, instead promoting another promising young congressman, Tip O’Neill, to Majority Leader. They became rivals for awhile but later worked together quite closely.

Rostenkowski remained in political exile through the 1970s. He worked on legislation, brought a boat load of pork to Chicago, and played an important role on the Ways and Means Committee, but otherwise, these were tough years for him. When Albert retired and O’Neill became Speaker, Rostenkowski successfully pushed for the conservative Democrat Jim Wright to take over as Majority Leader, a victory over party liberals who wanted someone more to the left and one that gave him new allies in powerful positions. Given that the top two Democrats on Ways and Means lost their election bids in 1980, Rostenkowski now became the senior Democrat, and he chose to chair that committee rather than become Majority Whip, which was offered to him. This was the period that made Rostenkowski fairly famous, as he led the House charge against Reagan’s tax plans and delivered the 1985 response address to a Reagan tax speech to the nation, where he urged citizens to “Write Rosty” to show their support for a fair and equitable tax system. This got him a lot of attention from the media, especially the Chris Matthews types who love to fawn over anyone close to the Kennedys who liked to appeal to the silent majority, as Rostenkowski did directly in that speech.

Rostenkowski was the master of the political compromise and he played a critical role in bills such as the 1983 Social Security funding law and the 1986 tax reform law. But he was hardly a great liberal by the Reagan years. More concerned with getting a bipartisan deal done, it was Rostenkowski who played the most important role in the Social Security bill raising the retirement age for full benefits from 65 to 67, angering fellow Democrats and pleasing Republicans. He claimed it was necessary to keep the system solvent, but this really wasn’t true. It was just more politically palatable to Republicans and too many Democrats than raising taxes.

Rostenkowski’s problem was that he was an old-school Chicago pol who did things the old-school way, such as taking massive and illegal advantage of congressional mailing privileges, having people on the payroll who did no work, tampering with a grand jury witness, using tax money to pay for personal vehicles and other such things that were more or less expected when he started his career but that were big no-nos by the 1990s. He was prosecuted by none other than Eric Holder and lost his reelection bid in 1994. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud, served 17 months in prison, and then was pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2000 after Gerald Ford wrote a letter of support for him. Ford later said, “Danny’s problem was he played precisely under the rules of the city of Chicago. Now, those aren’t the same rules that any other place in the country lives by, but in Chicago they were totally legal, and Danny got a screwing.” This is not really accurate. Basically, Congress tightened up its corruption rules after Watergate. This irritated Rostenkowski, who refused to change how he operated. And it eventually bit him. What Ford was expressing–and lots of people, both Democrats and Republicans openly felt sorry for him–was people of the Beltway culture being sympathetic to others of their culture, particularly a senior and respected figure. But Rostenkowski didn’t get screwed.

In the aftermath, Rostenkowski played the role of senior political advisor and lobbyist, giving talks, maybe teaching a class every now and then. He died in 2010 of lung cancer.

Dan Rostenkowski is buried in St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery, Niles, Illinois.

If you are interested in this series covering more Ways and Means chaircritters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I know such people are tremendously appealing and popular. The legendary Al Ullman, whose papers I have looked at extensively, is in Arlington, Virginia instead of his home state of Oregon, while the famous Wilbur Mills is in Kensett, Arkansas. We all know how much you want to send me to Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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