CHICAGO – With his rumpled suits and gruff, growling voice, former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was far more comfortable behind closed doors than in front of the camera or behind a podium.
Rostenkowski left speeches to others, but he quietly wielded enormous power on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years, becoming one of the most powerful lawmakers of his time – and a potent symbol of Washington’s excesses after he pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
When Rostenkowski died Wednesday of lung cancer at age 82, those who knew him recalled a meat-and potatoes politician from an era that doesn’t exist anymore, where leaders crossed party lines to cut deals and seek consensus, and where a young man from Chicago’s Northwest Side could grow up to shape the national agenda as head of a congressional committee.
In Rostenkowski’s 18 terms in Congress and his time as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, much of the legislation that emerged from Washington carried his fingerprints. He was credited with leading the 1983 effort to rescue Social Security from insolvency and pushing through a sweeping 1986 overhaul of the nation’s tax system.
Back home, where he emerged from the Chicago Democratic Machine, Rostenkowski brought in millions of federal dollars for public works projects, including improvements to the Kennedy Expressway and the transformation of Navy Pier on Chicago’s downtown lakefront into a recreational area.
Rostenkowski’s career started to unravel in 1992, when a Washington grand jury charged him with 17 counts of misusing government and campaign funds.
The scandal forced him to step down as chairman and led to his 1994 defeat by Republican unknown Michael Patrick Flanagan.
In the end, Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud.