Former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski Dies: The End of an Era

August 11, 2010

The obituaries are pouring in, reacting to the news that Chicagoan Dan Rostenkowski, the former long-time Illinois Congressman and powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee,‚ has died. To some, his passing may seem like a mere footnote now, coming as it does some 16 years after he was voted out of office and after he ultimately served time in prison on charges stemming from his abuse of House privileges. But for students of Chicago politics - indeed, politics in general - Rostenkowski's death symbolizes the end of an era. It's an era in Chicago that was marked by ethnic power-bases, strong party organizations,‚ pragmatism over ideology, backroom deals, and bringing home the bacon.‚  And few played the game in this era better or more powerfully than Rosty. His political acumen and his mastery of the art of the deal allowed him to win friends on both sides of the aisle and to deliver billions for Illinois projects.‚ ‚  Along the way, it also earned him a spot as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee where he became arguably one of the most influential lawmakers in the last half of the 20th century.‚  Without a doubt, Rosty was one of Chicago's greatest allies ever to serve on Capitol Hill. Rostenkowski represented Illinois' 5th U.S. Congressional District for 36 years - from 1959 until 1995.‚ ‚  He was the son of a powerful Chicago Alderman who grew up in a near-northwest neighborhood so heavily Polish it was once known as "Polish Downtown".‚  He remained true to the neighborhood throughout his life - and to his home parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka - where lore holds that planners routed the building of the Kennedy Expressway around the church in order to avoid its destruction.‚  It's only fitting that funeral services for Rostenkowski will take place there on Monday.
But like many things, the old Polish neighborhood isn't so Polish anymore.‚  And it isn't so old either.‚  Hip boutiques, new cafes, hot nightspots, young execs and granite-laden condos have sprouted up in the area now known variously as "East Village", "Ukranian Village", and "West Town", among others. And the game in Washington changed too.‚  The art of the deal and the art of compromise have been replaced by displays of partisanship and ideological purity.‚  The ground game has been replaced by the "air" game.‚  And the traditional ways of dispensing political favors and favoritism are, well, out of favor. Late in life, Rosty often said that his biggest regret is that he'd be known not for all the legislation he helped pass, but for his guilty plea to mail fraud charges stemming from the House Post Office Scandal. Richard Cohen noted these and many other changes in his 1999 biography entitled Rostenkowski:‚  The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics. I interviewed him on Eight Forty-Eight in October 27,1999 and Cohen told me that in many respects Rostenkowski's fall from grace was less a fall precipitated by a man intent on abusing power, and more the fall of a man who played a game whose rules had simply changed.‚  The old game had passed him by - and the new game was entirely different. For Rosty, the game came to an end in 1994.‚  His own problems, coupled with a national wave of mid-term anger against Congressional Democrats and first-term President Bill Clinton, paved the way for an upset by Republican newcomer Michael Flanagan.‚  The defeat made national news - and came to symbolize the wave election for the GOP that year. Two years later, though, the seat returned to Democratic hands.‚  The victor?‚  Rod Blagojevich.