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Corruption Charges Tainted Rostenkowski's Legacy

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Illinois Democrat Dan Rostenkowski was one of the most powerful figures in the U.S. House of Representatives for many years. His long public career ended when he pleaded guilty to fraud charges in the 1990s - charges that sent him to prison. Dan Rostenkowski died yesterday. And Chicago Public Radios Tony Arnold has this look back at his life.

TONY ARNOLD: Dan Rostenkowski had a certain swagger, a swagger that made for a blunt, straightforward, tough-talking politician. To give you an idea, here he is in a 1998 interview with CBS Radio station WBBM in Chicago, in which he predicted what reporters would say in his obituary.

Representative DAN ROSTENKOWSKI (Democrat, Illinois): You know, with all the legislation that I passed, with all the history that Ive written with respect to the economics of the country, theyre always going to say theres a felon named Danny Rostenkowski.

Thats going to be the obituary; thats what you fellas will write. You know, itll be, yeah, but he was a felon.

ARNOLD: Before he was that felon, Rostenkowski was a member of the Illinois legislature elected in his early 20s. Richard Cohen published a book on Rostenkowski. Cohen says Rostenkowski got his start in politics the same way many Chicago politicians do.

Mr. RICHARD COHEN (Author): He got there basically because he was his fathers son.

ARNOLD: Cohen says Joe Rostenkowski was a member of the Chicago City Council and helped his son win election. From there Dan befriended the powerful mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, who helped Rostenkowski win a seat in Congress. Rostenkowski was known for adopting the old-school way of Chicago politics. One example: the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

As police officers battled anti-war protesteors in the streets, Rostenkowski is said to have taken control of the gavel so that he would be the one calling the convention to order.

Looking back at the riots in a 2008 interview, Rostenkowski defended the police action, and described what he called the invasion of Lincoln Park.

Rep. ROSTENKOWSKI: Young, rambunctious, bearded revolutionaries who Im sure were sincere about fighting the war, but their tactics were illegal.

ARNOLD: In 1981, Rostenkowski became the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and ruled it for more than a decade, passing an overhaul to the nations tax system.

In the '90s, he was charged with having ghost employees on his congressional payroll, and with converting postage stamps into cash. He eventually pleaded guilty although, addressing reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse in Washington, Rostenkowski said hes no different than any other member of Congress.

Rep. ROSTENKOWSKI: I personally have come to accept the fact that sometimes, one person gets singled out to be held up by law enforcement as an example. I simply have to accept that, and move onward with my life.

ARNOLD: Rostenkowski lost re-election in 1994 to a Republican, and he was incarcerated for 15 months shortly thereafter.

Richard Cohen, who wrote the book on Rostenkowski, spent time interviewing the former congressman when he was incarcerated in Oxford, Wisconsin. Rostenkowski called it his Oxford education. Cohen says even while behind bars, Rostenkowski still carried himself as if he were - well, the chairman.

Mr. COHEN: Even then, while he was in prison, he it was a bit of a swagger and it was a self-confidence. And thats just who he was.

ARNOLD: In 2000, President Bill Clinton pardoned Dan Rostenkowski, who died yesterday at the age of 82 at his home in Wisconsin.

For NPR News, Im Tony Arnold in Chicago Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tony Arnold