My lunch with Dan Rostenkowski

I knew from a close aide to Dan Rostenkowski, who died yesterday at his lake house in Wisconsin, that the man who was among the most powerful to walk the halls of Congress was battling lung cancer. He kept his illness private, and, with the exception of one Chicago columnist, local reporters went along.

Rosty had never smoked, but his wife did, and then there were all those smoke-filled rooms from the days when Lyndon Johnson held sway as majority leader, president and confidant of Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

He was also close to Bill Clinton, although Rosty told me, during lunch in Chicago in March 2009 (see the highlights of that lunch at chicagomag.com), shortly before his cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy, that he considered Clinton more like a “kid brother.”

It was during Clinton’s first term that Rostenkowski became entangled in a scandal involving taking cash for postage stamps. That cost him the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee just as he was attempting to shepherd the Clintons’ healthcare bill through the House. (Rosty told me that he strongly advised Clinton, to no avail, to be more “incremental” in his approach.) In 1994 Rosty lost to an unknown first-time Republican candidate, and two years later he went to prison.

Rosty was full of stories about JFK (overrated, but “the press loved him. Jesus Christ, Walter Lippmann, James Reston, Christ sakes, he could do nothing wrong.”), Jackie (her husband’s biggest asset), Bobby Kennedy (mean), and LBJ, whom Rosty seemed genuinely to love and to consider the best president of his era. Rosty’s voice ranged between gruff and gruffer, but he was almost tender when he spoke of Johnson.

Her recalled Johnson’s trip to Chicago on April 1, 1968, the day after his address to the nation that he would not seek a second term.

“I get a call about 10:30 at night and [Chicago Mayor] Dick Daley [a kind of father figure/mentor to the younger man] says, ‘I’m picking you up tomorrow and we’re going out to the airport to pick up the president. … He’s coming to Chicago to speak to the National Association of Broadcasters. … [After the speech] We got on Air Force One. … He wanted me to fly back to DC and I wouldn’t go. … We must have talked I’d say for an hour and a half. He was explaining his reasons for not wanting to run. … He felt that he could [better] deal by not being president with the Vietnamese. … He was dressed to kill. … He had a blue shirt on and a rust-colored suit; he was natty. … Daley kept saying to Lyndon, ‘What does this mean? … Daley thought he had made a big mistake but Daley [also] didn’t think [Johnson] could win the nomination and the election. … The demonstrations against the war would have been unbelievable. … I don’t think he would have won the election. … One thing that Johnson must have said to me at least five times: ‘I don’t want to be the first president to lose a war.’ ”

For Johnson, Rosty said, the decision was acutely painful: “Nobody enjoyed being president more than Lyndon Johnson. He couldn’t wait until he got up in the morning, put his tootsies on the ground and walked around as president of the United States.”

Although he would never say it, Rosty’s downfall was equally painful. He was, after all, a man who had once held court, receiving assorted powerbrokers and lobbyists, at a table reserved for him at Morton’s in Georgetown. (A bronze plaque read, “Rosty’s Rotunda.”)

And Rosty was nothing if not proud. House of Representatives deputy historian Fred Beuttler told me in a conversation earlier this summer that had Rostenkowski decided to retire instead of run for reelection in 1994, House rules would have allowed him to convert his campaign cash to his personal use.

Rosty never lost the common touch. In the ’60s and early ’70s, when congressmen were allowed only one paid round-trip home, Rosty and two colleagues from Illinois, Bob Michel and Harold Collier, would pile into a station wagon on Thursday night. They would drive from D.C. to Chicago, taking turns sleeping on a cot set up in the back. Rosty needed to be back in Chicago on Friday morning for his weekly meeting with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.