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ROSTENKOWSKI: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics.

ROSTENKOWSKI: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics by Richard E. Cohen Ivan R. Dee, $27.50

AFTER FORMER HOUSE WAYS and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski pled guilty to fraud on April 9, 1996 in federal court, he was treated for prostate cancer and sent off to prison in Illinois. The humiliated old lion refused to see any outside visitors, including his friends and family. At his request, his wife and four daughters did not visit him for over a year.

One person Rostenkowski did agree to meet with repeatedly during his incarceration was Richard E. Cohen, a congressional reporter for the National Journal, who has authored two previous books about Congress and won the Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress. Those conversations, as well as many with his former aides, have helped Cohen to produce an insightful, sympathetic biography about one of the most unsympathetic, colorful characters ever to wield a gavel on Capital Hill.

Rostenkowski is not a deep psychological study, nor is it an investigative expose about specific abuses of power in Washington, nor is it particularly a tale about the intricacies of an important federal corruption case. It is, nonetheless, an important, revealing, anecdote-laden biography about one of the most compelling Washington political figures of our time, written by an enormously gifted journalist.

Rostenkowski's steady rise to power and his Greek-tragedy downfall also mirrors the fortune of the Democrats in the House. Author Cohen richly describes this broader context in which both the chairman and his party colleagues grew increasingly arrogant and out of touch over the years, until both came crashing down in 1994.

"Humility" was apparently never a word in Rostenkowski's vocabulary. The notorious Rostenkowski swagger surfaced early, during his high school years at St. John's Military Academy, a prep school outside Milwaukee. "His grades were average but his status was superstar," said one profile. "In his senior year, he was voted best athlete, most popular cadet, and runner-up as most conceited."

Politics clearly was in the genes. His Polish-American grandfather Peter was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1912, and his father Joe was a tough Chicago alderman and ward leader for 24 years who helped Cook County Clerk Richard J. Daley get elected Mayor of Chicago. In 1952, 24-year-old Danny Rostenkowski entered the family business, winning a seat in the state House of Representatives. Two years later, he was elected state senator.

Springfield, Illinois was (and remains) notoriously corrupt. As the late Chicago columnnist Mike Royko described it, "Every night was like New Year's Eve, the hotel bars echoing with laughter and song, the chomping of steaks, the happy giggles of the young typists, and the sound of the cash registers ringing up the lobbyists' money. There was little effort at pretense. Everybody knew the next man's appetites and his price." For example, a group of legislators held stock in racetracks, including Rostenkowski. In 1971, during the scandal in which Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner was convicted for granting favors to racing interests, the Chicago news media discovered that Rostenkowski had secretly bought $500 worth of racing stock at insider prices in 1957 and had received about $40,000 in dividends in the ensuing years. Rostenkowski initially lied, telling reporters he had sold the stock a decade earlier even though he still owned it. No charges were ever brought against him. Rostenkowski talked about this with Cohen and, typically, has no regret.

Despite stories like these, Cohen is very sympathetic to his subject. The author's final words about this convicted felon are, "His longevity, accomplishments, and symbolism in the nation's shifting landscape were unparalleled ... His work entitles him to the public's appreciation for his service. We won't see many more like him" Dan Rostenkowski could not have said it any better himself.

That's not to say it isn't necessarily true. But, to this reader at least, the most interesting dimension of this former baron of Washington power is also the most elusive. Somehow, his public persona as one of the few Washington insiders to be prosecuted successfully as a crook does not jibe well with his considerable, consensus-building talents as a skilled, national power broker. Perhaps this apparent contradiction is not so remarkable after all--many of our most competent leaders over time also have been unmitigated scoundrels, with significant personal character flaws. Rostenkowski was certainly not the last of the breed.

Charles Lewis is director of the Center for Public Integrity.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lewis, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Words:748
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