BACK IN ACTION
April 24, 1998
Dan Rostenkowski, the former congressional power who chaired the House Ways & Means Committee, is out of prison and back in public. Elizabeth Brackett has the report.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It has been eight months since Dan Rostenkowski walked out of a Wisconsin federal prison, six months since he left a halfway house in Chicago. The former chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee is ready to step back into the public eye. The reception was warm, the banquet hall packed with the city's movers and shakers. The $35 a plate invitation referred to Rostenkowski as "Mr. Chairman." Rostenkowski made no reference to his conviction for misusing federal funds, only a brief reference to his 15 months of prison time.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI, Former House Ways & Means Chairman: I graduated from Oxford, and I really had a Rhodes Scholarship. The past three years have been a constantly challenging time for me. Change never comes easily, and given the circumstances of my situation, that was particularly true for me. At times things have been downright bleak, and I wouldn't want to wish my experience on my worst enemy. But there were some silver linings. I've had an opportunity to read and reflect in a way that wasn't possible when I was in constant moment. In these remarks today I'd like to share some of my conclusions.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The conclusions did not dwell on the demise of Dan Rostenkowski's career but the demise of party politics.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: Those who say that the president's political power has been weakened by scandal have truly short memories. The sad fact is that President Clinton has never had a Democratic base in Congress. A group of people whom one could support the White House on any given issue are not there.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Weak parties, says the former powerful House Ways & Means chairman, lead to a lack of legislative will.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: I worked 14 years with a Republican president. But they wanted to get something done. What's lost here in the debate that's taking place on Capitol Hill is the appetite on the part of the legislative branch to get something done. And everybody that I worked with--Democrat or Republican--will have to attest that the one goal that Rostenkowski had was getting its share for the citizenry of this state.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Which makes his home state the easiest place for Rostenkowski to begin to try to rehabilitate his public image, says political science Professor Paul Green.
PAUL GREEN, Governor's State University: He is very determined to work at his legacy. He doesn't want his legacy and the name Rostenkowski to mean scandal and a prison sentence. I think he wants it to mean that he was probably the most congressman that Illinois has had perhaps in this century.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Reporter Bob Crawford points out one step Rostenkowski hasn't taken on his road to redeem himself. He has yet to apologize.
BOB CRAWFORD, WBBM-Radio: Danny finds it hard to apologize. I think it gets stuck in his throat. Unless I miss my guess, his pride still leads him to believe that he was deliberately targeted by federal investigators because he was such an inviting target. After all, he was the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: But you still, Mr. Archer, are not doing anything about the uninsured in the country. Isn't that basically what we're trying to solve--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It has been four years since Rostenkowski provided over the House Ways & Means Committee. As chairman, he wielded tremendous power, crafting the tax reform bill in 1986, trying to push through President Clinton's ill-fated health care reform plan, a plan he still thinks should have come to a vote. Perhaps the vote would have been taken had Rostenkowski still been chairman. Instead, he was battling for his political life.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: I will fight these false charges and will prevail. I will wash away the mud that has been splattered upon my reputation. Some ask how could you have done these things? The answer is simple: I didn't do them.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the 17-count indictment for misusing federal funds, including converting postage stamps to cash at the congressional post office and employing ghost payrollers was too much even for Chicago voters. Rostenkowski lost his seat in November of 1994.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: This, of course, is the first time that I stand and concede the defeat and wish my opponent well.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two years later, Rostenkowski pled guilty to two of the seventeen counts. He does not admit to wrongdoing today. Instead, he says, the government wore him down.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: They spent a lot of money, and they made me spent a lot of money. And after four years, you start thinking, how much more can I take, how much more can my family take? You don't know how powerful the government is until you get in trouble with 'em. And then the young, aggressive attorney that wants to crawl up the ladder of success because of the press that he could get, he's not too responsible about the way he treats the secrets of an investigation. The government can spend money ad infinitum, and you're just sitting there, listening to lawyers, you can't keep your mouth shut, don't say anything. In the meantime, the clock is running, and the cash register is ringing, you're going financially belly up.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: These days Rostenkowski spends his time in the office in the building his grandfather built before the turn of the century, the same office his father used when he was a powerful Chicago alderman with his young son nearby. Rostenkowski has only been to Washington twice since his release from prison, but he says he doesn't miss it as much as he thought he would.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: I think I'd miss it more if the Democrats were in charge. But you have to remember that when I lost the election, the Republicans took over, I don't know whether Rostenkowski would like to be considered the former chairman in the minority because all the time that I was there in the 14 years that I served as chairman, I think that the decisions I made were worthwhile.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Rostenkowski had planned to get an office in a downtown high rise. But he decided to stay with the building in the old neighborhood instead. He and his family have long lived upstairs, the home and office just a half a block from the expressway built with the help of the federal funds that flowed into the city when Rostenkowski was in Washington. But that was before the 15 months in prison, which Rostenkowski does admit was a life-changing experience.
DAN ROSTENKOWSKI: It certainly gave me a lot of time to read, to think, lose a lot of weight. I don't recommend the cure. But I don't know--I'm retired. I'm dabbling in my business. I'm making speeches. I enjoy lecturing. I think if I bring any value to the educational process of the young and enthusiastic student, it's that I think I'm very practical, and I like certainty.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Rostenkowski will turn 70 this year. He continues to be eligible for his $104,000 a year government pension. He says his speaking fee is $15,000, though this one was for free. He has a healthy client list, including the Chicago Board of Trade. He says he doesn't lobby; he just gives advice on legislative strategy.
JIM LEHRER: Rostenkowski has now paid his third visit to Washington since his release. He attended a White House reunion celebration of President Clinton's 1993 budget last night.