Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

Dan Rostenkowski

From 1954 to 1994, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. And for 36 of those years, Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski embodied the triumphs and excesses of his party's reign. Son of an alderman and scion of Chicago's predominantly Polish 32nd ward, he was an instinctually political animal. Barely out of college but with a tour in Korea behind him, Rostenkowski was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1952 at the age of 24. He won a seat in the U.S. Congress just six years later. A product of Chicago's dynastic political machine, Rostenkowksi became Mayor Richard J. Daley's chief ambassador to the court of Washington, channeling billions of dollars back to the Second City.

His influence would soon spread beyond Chicago's borders. Passed over for Speaker when Tip O'Neill won the post in 1977, Rostenkowski ascended to the chairmanship of the House's powerful Ways and Means Committee; at the height of the Reagan revolution, his penchant for palm-greasing and arm-twisting made him indispensable in forging compromises on Social Security and tax reform. But with power came temptation: in 1994, Rostenkowski was indicted on 17 felony counts of obstruction of justice and of using government money to underwrite lavish personal expenses. Stripped of his gavel and ousted from Congress in the Republican midterm landslide that year, Rostenkowksi eventually did what came naturally: bargain. He served 15 months in federal prison on two counts of fraud and was eventually pardoned by President Bill Clinton at the end of Clinton's second term. In an interview more than a decade prior to his death Aug. 11 from lung cancer, the former congressman lamented, "I know that my obituary will say, 'Dan Rostenkowski, felon.'" He was half right; his legacy, both in making the law and breaking it, is that of an unparalleled deal broker.

Adam Sorensen