Ways and Means

In the death of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, there is for some of us a kind of guilty pleasure.

The obits have struggled to give the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee his due as a legislator, as a master of reaching bipartisan consensus on the thorniest of tax and entitlement issues.

But the overlay, as he understood and predicted, was indictment, loss of power, felony conviction and time served. "Powerful, Corrupt" is the headline writer's shorthand, and that is fair enough in its way.

Perhaps society benefited from Rostenkowski's conviction on two counts of mail fraud and the 17 months he spent in a federal lockup, winding up in a Salvation Army halfway house before his release. But this society will have to get a good deal more saintly before some of us think so.

As a reporter and columnist, I didn't know Rostenkowski very well. Many of my colleagues, particularly in Chicago, knew him far better.

But I had time to observe him in his role as a committee chairman and there is this: Rostenkowski came to Washington with a purpose. He did not come here to tell us how much he loved Jesus or to sit on cable television and impugn the motives of others.

The only worthwhile members of Congress are those who come to the place with that sense of purpose, whether you agree with that purpose or not. And you can get a good argument their estimable numbers are shrinking.

Rosty wanted power and influence and he wanted to get things done. It took him a while to get to his chairmanship but by any standard, by any measure, he succeeded at getting things done.

He was imperious and greedy, arrogant and tribal and, if you spent time on Capitol Hill, you understood that he was also widely respected and much beloved.

"Everybody has a district," he said to me once. "Everybody had to go home and explain what they did here. Understanding that is fundamental."

Ways and Means was not run as a democracy, but Rostenkowski understood the fears and ambitions of his colleagues, especially those on his committee.

In a sense he was all clichés. He combined a love of the back-room deal with that hoariest of congressional bromides -- be a workhorse, not a show horse. Denizens of the Capitol, including many reporters, delighted in his bumptious, brash behavior and in his effectiveness.

I recall watching him deliver a floor speech -- a relative rarity -- on a bill to raise the pay of House members. Most of his colleagues wanted the money, of course, but they cowered in fear of constituent phone calls and the wrath of the opinion makers.

Rosty marched to the lectern and roared at the gathering, insisting on his worth, insisting that he would defend his salary back in Chicago.

Watching from behind him in the press gallery, I saw the beaming faces of his peers -- Republicans and Democrats -- basking in the moment. Here was a man living their dream - unapologetic and proud of his work.

Even his legislative failures were compelling. In 1989 a crowd of irate seniors famously chased him through the streets of his district over a health-care measure known as "catastrophic care."

I wrote a Sunday column suggesting that if the voters of his district wanted face time with the Chairman on the matter they should pony up a $2000 honorarium and get him to give a speech.

The next week, the phone rang and an aide asked me to hold for the Chairman.

Rostenkowski had seen the column and, as his voice rose, said that I needed to know - not that he cared -- that he didn't give speeches for a mere $2000.

Another morning in the House I watched an esteemed reporter for the New York Times follow Rosty toward a door to one of the many meeting rooms he commanded.

The Timesman had more questions. Rosty had no more answers. He opened the door, stepped inside and shut the door in the reporter's face.

Another Times reporter, the late Robin Toner, turned to me with a smile on her face. "Well," she said, "you don't see that happen to my paper very often."

Finally, there is the art of the performance. Understanding this concept is not possible if you possess a reflexive distaste for politicians. But there it is.

There is pleasure to be drawn and something to be learned from watching someone do their job with surpassing skill, and a little style. Think Michael Jordan going to the hoop, Meryl Streep at the movies, Derek Jeter playing baseball, Mike Royko at the height of his column writing powers, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan working a crowd.

For all his imperfections, which will be well chronicled this week and next, Rostenkowski was exceedingly good at being Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. There are worse legacies.

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