Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics
ISBN: 1566633109
Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics
Until the 1994 election when Republicans took control of the United States Congress, Democrats had enjoyed immense legislative power for forty years. Most of them practiced old-school politics. Critics charged that they exploited corrupt powers of incumbency, but these Democrats also served their constituents in a time when the public still believed in their elected representatives.

Dan Rostenkowski was among the half-dozen most influential members of Congress during the second half of the twentieth century, Richard E. Cohen writes in his biography, Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics. As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the congressman from Illinois influenced the nation’s tax laws, international trade, Social Security, health care, welfare, and other areas policies that affected most Americans.

Richard E. Cohen’s political biography of Rostenkowski follows his rise to power from modest origins in the Democratic ward politics of Chicago’s Polish northwest side, to his legislative triumphs, and ultimately to his criminal conviction and imprisonment for abuse of House practice. Because Rostenkowski served so many years in Congress (1959-1995), his career offers a prism into the changing nature of the institution and of the Democratic party, a change that gradually brought a new bitterness to Washington politics.

The rise and fall of Dan Rostenkowski mirrors the rise and fall of the House Democrats. Richard E. Cohen has written a compelling, eye-opening story of American politics at work, portrayed through the career of one of its most fascinating practitioners.
—from the publisher's website

Search Audible
Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politics
Program Air Date: September 19, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Richard Cohen, author of "Rostenkowski," I'm gonna take a little bit of time and read a footnote or a note in the back, and get you to explain it. It's note 35 in Chapter 10. `After I made several requests to Rostenkowski, he agreed to permit me to visit him at Oxford in March 1997.' Quote, `"You are my first visitor," he said, "and you will be my last visitor." Although Bureau of Prisons regulations permit journalists to meet privately with inmates at the facility, officials in Oxford and Washington refused to grant me such an opportunity. Further evidence of the arbitrary enforcement of rules came during the second day at Oxford. The conversation was delayed for 30 minutes because the guard objected to my taking a fresh writing pad in to the interview, even though another guard watched as I filled a separate pad during my first conversation with Rostenkowski. The second guard, Officer R. Cupp, finally relented, but without explanation.'
RICHARD COHEN, AUTHOR, "ROSTENKOWSKI": Well, I'm describing the most extraordinary interview that I had with Dan Rostenkowski in preparing this book and probably the most interesting interview I've had in my years of being a reporter here in Washington. As, you know, many of your viewers no doubt recall, Dan Rostenkowski, after serving 36 years in Congress, ended up in federal prison because he pleaded guilty to two offenses, and it was--Mr. Rostenkowski had cooperated with me before he went to prison. He served about a year at what he--getting his Oxford education at the minimum-security prison just north of Madison, Wisconsin.

But as it turned out, I needed to talk to him while he was in prison, and I had a lot more research to do. And he was very accommodating to me, he was helpful to me all along the way, although the book clearly was and remains under my control, and he was initially reluctant to--although he was initially reluctant to have me visit him at Oxford--the Oxford prison, I kind of pushed it and he was very kind to permit me to meet him there.

I mention elsewhere in the book that I was--he told me--and I believe him--that I was his only--the only person who visited him while he spent more than a year in jail. He did not--even though his wife and his fourdaughters were in Chicago, which is maybe a three-hour drive from the federal prison, he didn't permit them to visit him. There were lots of friends from Washington and, obviously, from Chicago who wanted to visit him. He said no. In effect, I think he just didn't want to see anyone. He didn't want anyone to see him while he was in jail.

And to get to the point of the footnote, “I spent these eight hours with him, Friday night, Saturday morning, and it was extraordinary. It was as though I was talking to him at the US Capitol, where I had talked tohim many times before. He was really on. He was in touch with current politics, his attitude was incredibly positive. He was engaging in, obviously, an environment that was difficult for him. It would be difficult for anyone to be a prisoner after 36 years of power.”
LAMB: How long was he in prison?
COHEN: He left--he reported at first to the federal prison hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, which is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic, or at least the--and the reason he went to the Federal Prison Hospital in July of 1996 is because he had had prostate surgery and he needed some aftercare. So he was in Rochester, Minnesota, which is a higher-security prison, for people--for inmates with health problems. He was there between July and December of 1996, and then he was transported in December to Oxford and remained there, I think, until October of 1997.
LAMB: In reading your book, I kept contrasting what you were talking about in the prison cell with Morton's of Chicago in Georgetown. What's the Morton's story?
COHEN: Well, the Morton's story, which is kind of classic Rosti, is that he loved the camaraderie, the bon ami, the life ex--the life's blood of politics and engaging with colleagues, with other politicians, with friends. You know, it used to be said of him, and I think largely correctly, that he'd conducted a lot of business over steak and martinis. And Morton's, which is a--been a restaurant chain originally started in Chicago--he spent a lot of-- Rosti knew--knows the owner--I think the owner is still alive--the original owner of Morton's. Morton started up restaurants here in Washington and elsewhere. It was Rosti's kind of restaurant, and he would--since early in his career as a politician, Rostenkowski--when he was a young politician, he would meet--have dinner with older men, white men typically, and they would kind of go over--you know, share stories, have a good time, and that was his political life.
LAMB: Who would pay for that?
COHEN: A good question. Sometimes there was--it was ambiguous. When he went to dinner at Morton's or other places in Washington, if it was just a bunch of politicians--no--fellow members of Congress, they probably shared the tab among each other or maybe back in the '60s, when the political money routine was different and the rules were very different and much looser than they are now, one of the members of Congress or politicians might have gone into a personal fund to get the money. They might have had a lobbyist come with them and, of course, the rules permitted that in those days. The rules would not permit that now. He also took--he did a lot of traveling, where companies wanted him or interest groups asked him to speak to their members. In those cases, the interest groups, legally, under House rules, congressional rules, and under federal law--there were restrictions and they--the restrictions got tighter over the years. But it is still permitted for interest groups to pay members of Congress to appear before their groups.
LAMB: Were their bars in that prison in Oxford, Wisconsin?
COHEN: You don't mean bars for drinking?
COHEN: You mean bars to keep prisoners from going out. No, there were not bars. However, it would have been very ill-advised for individuals to have walked away. Obviously, the inmates wanted to serve their time, follow the rules and leave. It was--there were just a couple hundred male prisoners there. I actually talked to Rostenkowski in what was a cafeteria, a very, very modest cafeteria. Let me assure everyone there were no golf courses there, there were no tennis courts. He got his exercise--he lost about, I think, 70 pounds while he was at Oxford 'cause exercise--by eating better and by doing a lot of walking. But this minimum-security prison in Oxford was immediately adjacent to a much higher-security prison, you know, a quarter-mile away with a high barbed-wire fence, some rolled wire at the base and kind of a classic higher-security prison. And Rostenkowski's job while he was in prison--and I think all minimum-security prisoners had one job or another--his job was to read the meters on the boiler. Obviously--and he did that fine. Didn't--wasn't very onerous. Obviously, though, it showed how much he had fallen.
LAMB: How long was he in Congress?
COHEN: Thirty-six years.
LAMB: What district did he represent?
COHEN: He represented--well, in his years, it was mostly the 8th District, it's now the 5th District. It was a district that started off on the northwest side of Chicago, which was--in 1958, when he was first elected, it was a heavily Polish, largely white district. If any of your viewers know Chicago, Milwaukee Avenue was the center of the district. Over the years, as people--Poles moved out to the suburbs, a lot of Hispanics, Mexicans, some Asians moved in, the district changed, not only in the demographics, but the geography. He picked up more of the--moved east to the lakefront and that was his closing years.
LAMB: You say he has four daughters and they went by the name Rosten?
COHEN: He himself went by the name--he dropped his K-O-W-S-K-I when--I guess when he was in high school, but when he entered politics at age 24, and running in a Polish district, he took back the--he ran as a Pole, but he told me that he didn't want his daughters to have to be, in effect, burdened by being identified as Polish these days.
LAMB: There were 17 counts...
LAMB: the indictment against him, and those 17 counts were about what?
COHEN: Well, the main count, the one that's most often described to the public in newspaper articles and by the prosecutors, the main count was that he illegally exchanged postage stamps that he received as a member of the House--that he illegally exchanged these stamps for cash and that, in effect, the prosecutors suggested that he pocketed the cash. But we never--because the prosecutors never presented their evidence in this case, all we had were a few pages--maybe 20, 25 pages of an indictment, we never saw the government's evidence. Rostenkowski firmly denied that he ever received cash in exchange for stamps. There were a number of individuals--House officers, one other member of the House, Joe Kolter from Pennsylvania--who did plead guilty for stamps--that said they were guilty of stamps for cash or other violations at the post office. So that was the centerpiece of the indictment.

But the prosecutors, the US attorney's office here in Washington, spent, I believe, two years, from 1992 until the indictment in May of 1994, investigating all aspects of Dan Rostenkowski's finances. And they indicted--and the 17 counts included many other charges of basically, in way or another, ripping off the taxpayer. And as the US attorney said, betraying the public trust.
LAMB: How did he rip off the taxpayer? What was the business about having people on your payroll who didn't do any work?
COHEN: Well, the two counts to which he ultimately pleaded guilty in April of 1996--I mean, he confessed to these actions, although he said that what he did was no different than what many or even most other members of Congress did. The two actions to which he pleaded guilty were, number one, payroll padding. In other words, putting people--individuals on his payroll, like teen-age kids who were children of friends were put on the payroll for summer jobs and they didn't--and Rostenkowski confessed--was up front about the fact that these individuals didn't do a lot of work, but that it was good for them to be-- to see government in operation. So there was payroll padding, which is an offense that--or practice, some would say--it's clearly illegal under the law to be on a government payroll and not do work. But it's something that's--goes back decades in American government and politics. The other offense to which he pleaded guilty was taking--all members of Congress have allowances to make purchases--for example, at the stationery store. He used his allowance to purchase crystal sculptures and other kinds of china which he gave to friends rather than using those sculptures as part of his government work.
LAMB: How long have you worked for the National Journal and covered Congress?
COHEN: I started with National Journal in 1973. I've covered Congress since 1977.
LAMB: There's another footnote I want to read here, and it's footnote number 13 from Chapter 3.
LAMB: `As an adolescent reporter, I struck a similar tone in an essay, "1968: A Political Year," for my undergraduate yearbook at Brown University,' quote, "a year like none other we have ever known or perhaps endured, a tragic, disappointing, violent, interminable year, a year with some brief hopeful minutes and days, but then always the disillusion and despair." And you were citing Theodore White's "Making of the President" in 1968.
COHEN: I mean, I enjoy being a reporter. I was writing then as a senior at Brown University for my college yearbook, an essay of--as you say, an essay about politics in 1968. I graduated the following year. And for Dan the reason I cited that--and I try not to inject myself into this book, but the reason I cited my comment about 1968, which was similar to that of presidential scholar-journalist Theodore White, is because 1968 was a very difficult year--proved to be a very difficult year and a year of great change for Dan Rostenkowski and for the Democratic Party, and it was symbolized, as many of your viewers know, it was symbolized by the polo--the Democratic National Convention that was held in Chicago. There were riots in the streets, and it left a lot of bad blood, both literally and figuratively in the party, in the nation. And Rostenkowski suffered politically because of that when, subsequently, he--and it was--this is part of a continuous theme that's in this story, that Rostenkowski was at odds with the liberals, who were the reformers. And obviously, in that group, the reformers, the liberals, were largely anti-war with--and that was what the fighting was about in 1968. So it caused great trauma for him.
LAMB: What year did you graduate from Brown?
COHEN: 1969.
LAMB: What did you study?
COHEN: Well, I spent much of my time with the campus newspaper. They gave me degree for--I think I earned it--for majoring in American history.
LAMB: And then what'd you do?
COHEN: Came to--graduated in June of 1969, came to--immediately came to Washington, where I attended and graduated from Georgetown Law School. During those three years of law school, which were--where I was a very ordinary law student, never had much interest in practicing law, but I thought the legal education would be useful--during those three years, I worked on Capitol Hill for my home state senator, Edward Brook of Massachusetts.
LAMB: What did you learn from him?
COHEN: I learned a lot--a combination of the Brook office--Senate office and going to law school in Georgetown, those three years I learned a lot about Washington, how--not only how Congress works, but how the process--the regulatory, the rule-making of the political process--how that all comes together. But frankly, it's a continuing education. I think anyone who lives in Washington and thinks they know it all in a few months or a few years is kidding themselves. But that was kind of the beginning of an education, and I'm glad I went to law school.
LAMB: You write in the note on sources, you say, `My chief regret, aside from the usual limitations of time, is that several Democratic members whom I have often interviewed over the years declined multiple requests to talk specifically about Rostenkowski. Although I have faithfully tried to reflect their activities and views in this book, I regret their apparent desire to erase the memory of their former colleague.' You want to tell us any of those people who wouldn't talk?
COHEN: Sure. And I did not identify them in the book, but a fair question. I regret that members among the Democrats who were very familiar with Dan Rostenkowski and could have been--I think could have been helpful to me in kind of filling out his story, although I think I was fair to Rostenkowski and to these members in the end--but those members included Dick Gephardt, David Obey--Gephardt, obviously, is the current House minority leader; David Obey, one of the leading reformers in the House, now the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. They each, through staff, politely refused my requests to talk to them. Pat Moynihan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who was a counterpart to Rostenkowski, did not agree to talk to me. One other, Sidney Yates, who was a long-serving member of Congress from Chicago, the district neighboring Rostenkowski, he did not agree to talk to me.

And I can't tell you why they didn't, but I do believe, as I suggested in that footnote, that their view and the view of many Democrats--and I can't speak for every one of them, but that after his indictment, I think most Democrats wanted to move on, move beyond Rostenkowski. There was a certain embarrassment.
LAMB: Go back to Oxford, Wisconsin, and the prison again. What did you see there that you didn't put in your book? What did you feel there that you didn't put in your book?
COHEN: Well, I hope I reflected --well--what I saw in the book, but what I saw was...
LAMB: I'm talking about the human side of it.
COHEN: You mean of Dan Rostenkowski?
LAMB: Yeah. What was he dressed like?
COHEN: He was in prison fatigues, which were kind of very drab green. He had on glasses that were--I think they may have been prison issue. He--I mean, he was like other prisoners. And what I saw was this man--and again, I say this as a journalist and--without taking--without trying to be too judgmental--I saw a guy who then and now refused to be beaten down by a very unpleasant turn of events, being sent to jail and having a very painful end to his political career. He was--as I think I said earlier, he was--even in prison, he was really--he enjoyed his life, as he said to me then. He was looking--even while he was in prison, he wanted to get it over with so that he could resume his life in Chicago, where he was respected as a member of the community. And he thought he could do that. He wanted to get to it. And I think in Chicago terms, in his circle of friends, I think--and again, I can't speak for him, but I think he feels that he's moved beyond his prison experience, and that really was his goal.
LAMB: You say that Virginia Fletcher, one of his former assistants, is still working for him over here in an insurance office in Virginia.
COHEN: Yeah.
LAMB: What's that about?
COHEN: Well, he doesn't talk a lot. Mr. Rostenkowski doesn't talk to me or, frankly, I think, to too many others about precisely what he does, but he did tell me once that he's--since leaving Congress in 1994, obviously, he has made more money annually than he ever made when he was in government and, of course, he also receives--continues to receive his pension. He and--with the assistance of his longtime secretary Virginia Fletcher, he has a Chicago--he has a Washington office over in--across the river in Arlington. He also does work out of his home--an office out of his home in Chicago, where--he spends more of his time in Chicago, actually, than he does in Washington. But essentially, what he does, I gather, is advise big companies, mostly Chicago-based companies and other groups in Chicago--advises them about their corporate business, advises them about what might be going on in Washington. He does not do any lobbying as far as I know. He certainly--he has not registered as a lobbyist. He comes to Washington on occasion to visit with old friends, but he's kept an extremely low profile here. And he continues to--tries to enjoy life. He recently went golfing with friends in the West.
LAMB: You point out somewhere in the book that his old staff helped him prepare memos that he sent to President Clinton while he was incarcerated. Explain that.
COHEN: Well, I've never--I haven't seen the memos. Again, I'm just relying on what he told me and what a couple--I think a couple of the staff had told me. Mr. Rostenkowski says that he thinks that Bill Clinton's a great president, a good individual. Rostenkowski was critical of the president's behavior that led to impeachment. But he--and this is kind of part of the Rostenkowski shtick, that he's wanting to remain engaged--I mean, obviously, he doesn't have much of a--or he has virtually--he has no formal role in American government and politics. But he has sent--he told me he sent letters to the president advising him on how to handle various political issues or individuals, how to deal with Dick Gephardt or Bob Dole, who is a friend of Rostenkowski's, how to deal with Newt Gingrich. And according to Rostenkowski, he told me that Clinton --he was told that Clinton read these letters and responded one way or another.
LAMB: But was that work being done by aides that are still on the Ways and Means Committee on their--on government time?
COHEN: Yes. Well, I suppose that the aides would say they were doing their official work for the Ways and Means Committee for Charlie Rangel, who's now the senior Democrat of the committee, or Sam Gibbons of Florida before that. And I suppose if challenged, the aides would say they were doing this work for Rostenkowski during their off hours. But essentially, his former aides, many of whom--or several of whom remain on the Ways and Means Committee staff, still feel very close to Rostenkowski and sent him information about what's going on in Congress, their thoughts, their political intelligence.
LAMB: Why do you think you were the only human being to see him in prison, or the only person outside of the prison...
COHEN: And his lawyer was the one other person. Well, he--I mean, there's really two part--the answer, I guess, is in two parts. One, he didn't want other people to come in because he was humiliated and he didn't want people to remember him or to see him that way, and I think he didn't want to be seen--he didn't want to see others that way. And I think the reason he agreed to see me after many months in which, frankly, I pestered him, both in phone calls to prison and in letters that I sent to him, he agreed to see me because he wanted to help me--he agreed to help me produce this book and there are--obviously, there are parts of this book--many parts of this book in which he was my main source. He wanted this book to come out.
LAMB: Has he read it?
COHEN: That's a good question. A review--I believe he has. I sent him galleys of the book this spring before the book came out. He called me to nitpick a detail. When asked by a reporter named Paul Merrion who's based here in Washington and writes for Crain's Chicago Business--Paul Merrion read the book and then wrote something about it for Crane's Chicago Business. Merrion called Rostenkowski, asked him what he was to--the chairman, as some still call him, what he, Rostenkowski, thought about the book and Rostenkowski's response was, `I haven't read it yet.' I think he's read it and that may be--and it is egotistical on my part. He has a way, Mr. Rostenkowski does, of being cautious in giving his opinions of various matters. And my sense is--and this is presumptuous on my part--my sense is that he doesn't want to--he's been reluctant to say what he thinks about the book until he hears from friends and other people what they think about the book.
LAMB: What were the restrictions when you were at the Oxford prison about what you could do and not do, 'cause you alluded to having some problems with the prison guards.
COHEN: He didn't want-- and I agreed to this term, that I would not write anything about the conditions under which--in which he was living, which were--he was a--you know, I did not --I talked to him entirely in the cafeteria. I did not see him in the room in which he had--in which there were one or two other inmates and they were all in bunk beds. So I did not actually see his cell, such as it was. I didn't --as you said earlier, we didn't see any bars--I didn't see any bars. So the conditions were that I wouldn't write about him in prison, in part because--I think substantially because he didn't want to do anything or to have anyone write anything that might jeopardize his early--or his scheduled release and with--and his getting, you know, time for good behavior and all that.
LAMB: So exactly how long was he in the prison?
COHEN: He was at Oxford from December of 1996--and I think he actually left in August of 1997, was taken to a halfway house in Chicago, was allowed time--he had to report back to the halfway house, I think, every night, but was given some time to reacclimate himself to the Chicago community, and then ultimately was released from the halfway house in October of 1997.
LAMB: So during the time that he was at Oxford, he didn't see his family or his daughters or his wife.
COHEN: That's what he told me, and I believe him.
LAMB: Have you met his wife?
COHEN: Met her very briefly once at their home. Mrs. Rostenkowski, Laverne--they've been married since 1951 and she has remained largely apart from or invisible in his political life.
LAMB: Why?
COHEN: That's kind of--it's a good que--I don't--it's the old-fashioned style of politicians. They kept the wives at home to raise the family. She wanted her own life. Washington, in the days when Rostenkowski came here, just like Springfield, Illinois, when he was a state legislator, was a male society where the politicians bonded with each other as wives stayed at home. And I think it was just kind of old school. She did some work--I mean--I don't--and, you know, I can't really answer the question because he and his wife Laverne never really have talked about their living arrangements and their professional arrangements.
LAMB: Did he deserve to go to Oxford?
COHEN: He said...
LAMB: Do you think he did?
COHEN: I think, you know, he violated the law. He conceded that he violated the law, although a lesser offense than what he was originally charged with. I think there are--prosecutors have to use discretion. If he had pleaded guilty while he was still in prison, he would've served a--less than the 15 months that he ultimately served because he had something--Rostenkowski had something to give up.

Ultimately, the prosecutors were less concerned putting him in jail than they were in getting him out of office. He did violate the law. I guess I have questions whether a man who's clearly out of public life, who was age 68 when he reported--I don't know that there were--that that much was served by sending him to prison. But, obviously, we do have elements of fairness and equity, and prosecutors decided that once he had pleaded guilty and the judge agreed with this, judge insisted that there are various traditional standards for prison time. And Judge Norma Holloway Johnson insisted that those standards be met.
LAMB: And she is the same judge...
COHEN: Who handled important parts of the litigation between Ken Starr and President Clinton on which-- on the release of various materials in the Clinton investigation.
LAMB: Do you know who she was appointed by?
COHEN: Jimmy Carter.
LAMB: And what role did Eric Holder play in all this?
COHEN: He was the prosecutor who-- with his staff--and the staff began the investigation--the staff at the US attorney's office here in Washington--Eric Holder was the US attorney from 1993 to '97, roughly. But the investigation actually began--the investigation of the post office and of Rostenkowski began in 1992 by Jay Stevens, who was then the Republican prosecutor appointed by President Bush. Holder took over--replaced Stevens. Staff had already--and the staff continued the investigation. Holder brought the indictment, and got the conviction--the plea bargain. And now Eric Holder is the deputy attorney general. And if Janet Reno steps down before the end of her term, which there has been speculation that she might, I think there's a good chance that Eric Holder would become attorney general.
LAMB: And as I was reading, I kept thinking Judge Johnson and Eric Holder, both African-American liberal, probably Democrats...
COHEN: Both of them grew up in Washington, DC...
LAMB: Rostenkowski, a Democrat. And then in the middle of all of this, he's talking with Bill Clinton, and Bill Clinton's calling him and having a, you know, `Stay with it, pal. I'm on your side,' kind of a discussion. How did that happen in the middle of all of this?
COHEN: Well, and there's another--I mean, I get to that in a second, but another intriguing element is that at a certain point both of them, both Rostenkowski and Clinton, were represented by Robert Bennett. And that caused a certain conflict. And Rostenkowski, at the end, had a split off from Bob Bennett, and they parted on somewhat unhappy terms. You know, it's fascinating that--and this is another change, an important change in American politics. Bill Clinton was a buddy --Dan Rostenkowski considered himself a buddy of Bill Clinton--President Clinton.

Dan Rostenkowski--when Clinton came to office, he acted, as-- I say in the book, that he was like a Dutch uncle. He was--he kind of took Clinton by--wanted to take Clinton by the hand and help him out. And Clinton I think-- I did not talk to Clinton or anyone at the White House about this, so I'm relying a little bit on a few comments that Clinton has made publicly-- brief public statements, as well as what Rostenkowski and friends have told me.

Clinton clearly was pained by Rostenkowski's indictment and ultimate imprisonment, and he told that to Rostenkowski, but he never--from all appearances, Clinton never did anything--never, I don't think, lifted a finger to try to direct or call off the investigation. He was really hands off. And that's a--really, a major change in aspects of the investigating process in government.
LAMB: Now did you get this quote, "This ding-a-ling judge wants me on my knees?" Was that yours?
COHEN: That's what Rostenkowski said to me describing how Judge Johnson treated him when he pleaded guilty.
LAMB: She said, `When I think of these proceedings'--this is the judge--`the phrase that comes to my mind is betrayal of trust, both with his constituents and the nation. In your important position in Congress, you have consistently and egregiously pursued, of course, a personal gain for yourself and those whom you favored, including friends and family. You have stained them as well as yourself and the high position you held by crimes and misdeeds. You have brought a measure of disgrace upon the institution of which you had the privilege of serving for an extraordinary number of years. Rather than advance its noble purposes and lawmaking with the great experience and power you acquired, you shamelessly abused your position.' And he called that judge a ding-a-ling.
COHEN: To me. No--I mean...
LAMB: To you?
COHEN: court, obviously, he took it.
LAMB: Yeah. But that's after that happened.
COHEN: Right. A few months later he said that to me. I mean, she's known as a law-and-order judge. She's usually sympathetic to prosecutors. And, you know, there's--her comments, I think, were gratuitous. They were unnecessary. But she was expressing what was her outrage about his conduct.
LAMB: Why were they unnecessary?
COHEN: Well, I mean, her mandate was to sentence him and to receive the papers. I mean, she can do what--obviously, she's-- as judge, she's allowed to say whatever she wants. I thought--I mean, it was a--one--you know, one--I mean, he did violate the law and he confessed his guilt at that. It was a--obviously, a painful and difficult moment for him to be there and to confess to these crimes. And I-- and it was extreme--humiliating in the extreme for him to be there. And my sense just as a reporter in the room--in the courtroom, is that she was just kind of sticking the dagger in him and kind of doing another twist of the dagger.

And, you know, she ignored--and I think--I thought, you know--and I wrote the book to show that there was a lot more to Dan Rostenkowski's life than ending up in--as a federal prisoner for a year. She kind of ignored--I mean, to me--there are, you know, his 36 years--or his 42 years in public life included more than just this disgraceful ending.
LAMB: You then quote Dan Rostenkowski later on in the book. "I am here in prison"--this is during your visit--"for what I admitted tongue in cheek." He said, "I don't think I'm isolated as the only one who did it. I'm not completely convinced that what I did was wrong. Dispensing gifts to some friends and hiring the children of others was my way of life," he added. `He worked hard at his job, he said. And he didn't have time to pay attention to all the rules changes. He remained empathetic that he did not participate in stamps--or emphatic, I'm sorry--that he did not participate in stamps for cash practices.' What's your take on `I admitted tongue in cheek?'
COHEN: He--I mean, he was playing in the 1990s when--in his closing years in Congress, and even his view when he pleaded guilty and his view now is he was--he continued to play by the rules that were in place when he was first elected to Congress in 1958. And under those rules, he believed that the practices were proper--the way he ran his office was proper.

The problem was--and even his friends said this, former colleagues in Congress--Jack Murtha from Pennsylvania said to me that, you know--Murtha, like Rostenkowski, opposed many of these new rules, but as Murtha said to me, you know, `When the rules change,' you gotta--`members of Congress have to adapt.' He, Murtha, adapted to the rules changes. Rostenkowski, in Murtha's rules, was too arrogant to think that he needed to change his life.

Another member of Congress, Dennis Eckert, who was a younger member from Ohio, I think, pretty well encapsulated it to me. Eckert said, `During Rostenkowski's years the road curved, but Rostenkowski kept driving straight.' He was--Rostenkowski was old fashioned. And he probably--I mean, in his heart of hearts, he agreed that he didn't care. He didn't focus on--he had better things to do. He was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He didn't think the rules--he thought these rules were kind of silly, frankly, and that it was more important that he legislate in the national interest. That was his view.

That's the tongue in cheek. He conceded the conduct, but he didn't really think was a violation of the law or it ought not be one.
LAMB: Had you written about the $800,000 to commemorate the--I don't know how many years it was--what?--200 years that the Ways and Means Committee--or--How many years was it they had the big celebration?
COHEN: The bicentennial. They had a big--in 1989 in the middle of Rostenkowski's chairmanship, he put on a big shindig--party to celebrate the committee's 200th anniversary.
LAMB: How long was he chairman of the Ways and Means Committee?
COHEN: Thirteen and a half years.
LAMB: And what is their job?
COHEN: I think it's the most powerful committee in Congress. Their job is to--in effect to originate all tax legislation, international. They deal with, you know, control over most international trade issues. They have jurisdiction over Social Security, Medicare, welfare. They have--the Ways and Means Committee, which he chaired, has control over most entitlement programs and aspects of revenue raising.
LAMB: And go back to that bicentennial celebration. There was a 526-page official history. There was a program that they put together, a documentary that they wanted to be on public television. And they had to raise $800,000 to pay for it all. How'd they do it?
COHEN: He raised it--what's now the common practice in Washington, he went to interest groups, to big companies, perhaps to some labor unions that do business-- that have issues before the Ways and Means Committee. And he and his staff and fund-raisers asked and got money--raised money in $10,000 and $20,000 chunks from these groups. And they put on--that money--that $800,000--put on a big private dinner that was held in the Ways and Means Committee hearing room in the Longworth Building. And it--they produced this fairly impressive book, which was a history of the Ways and Means Committee, written by--it was fairly--it was a commendable book. Not many people ever read it; had a very limited circulation. But it was a pretty good book about the committee.
LAMB: You write that it was emceed that night by Cokie Roberts.
COHEN: Indeed, it was.
LAMB: Why would she do that?
COHEN: Well, that's a good question. Maybe you should ask her. But her father, Cokie Roberts --her late father was Hale Boggs, was a member of Congress. He was a member of the Ways and Means Committee, died in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1972 when he was the majority leader. Cokie, from the public record, we know that she was raised as a kid in Washington. Her father was a member of Congress. And even as a kid, she was very well connected to the world of--the House of Representative and she was friendly with members, including with Dan Rostenkowski. And obviously she's become something of a media celebrity and she enjoys, I gather, emceeing various events on Capitol Hill.
LAMB: Why would you need a bicentennial celebration commemorating the Ways and Means Committee?
COHEN: You don't need it. He wanted to do it to make the committee look--and the members of the committee feel a sense of history, feel important. And, frankly, it was a way for Rostenkowski to show his importance to others and was a way --and I say this more positively, he felt good about the committee. And he wanted to bring many of its current members and former members together. Among the former members of the committee who attended that dinner in July of 1989 was the then president of the United States, George Bush, who as a friend--good friend of Rostenkowski's.
LAMB: Who else was in the private dinner? Do you know?
COHEN: Wilbur Mills, who had chaired the committee and...
LAMB: Weren't there lobbyists and those folks there?
COHEN: ...Yes. And they paid their way in. And it was--there were no--other than the emcee, as far as I know, there were no other reporters who were there. And they did use the public building.
LAMB: And what's that say about the system?
COHEN: It says that members of Congress control the rooms in which--a committee chairman controls the eleven--Room 1100 Longworth. He felt that it was his space. And he felt that-- I mean, let me make a slightly larger point. Dan Rostenkowski, especially in his years as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, thought that he was at the same level as a corporate CEO. And he thought that he was entitled to the perquisites of his office. And he was not embarrassed by that. He felt that members of Congress should get more money, should get a bigger salary. So he thought he was entitled--by virtue of his office, of his chairmanship, he felt that he was entitled to show his influence.
LAMB: This is kind of out of context, but it's an interesting couple of pages where you had some quotes about other leaders, and you can fill in the blanks. `The shattering defeat was one of the lost points of Rostenkowski's political career.' Quote, `"I sat alone that night with Danny in tears and Hale, in Hale's office," said Gary Hymel, chief aide to Boggs. As Jim Wright recalled, Danny said to me afterwards, "Why didn't you tell me and I wouldn't have run?" He said now he was in trouble with Mayor Daley.' What's all that?
COHEN: Gary Hymel, who helped to fill in some of these details, and I have them from other participants as well--Gary Hymel was the top aide then to Hale Boggs, we mentioned a moment ago, this happened in 1970. Hale Boggs had just been elected majority leader. And in those day--and Carl Albert of Oklahoma just been chosen speaker of the House in 1970. Dan Rostenkowski, who'd been in the House for 12 years, wanted to be and very much thought he was in line to be majority whip. But--and he had the support of Hale Boggs. But it was the decision of Carl Albert. Albert was unhappy with Rostenkowski for various reasons, some of which go back to the convention in Chicago, 1968, where Rostenkowski kind of showed up Albert in ways that the readers might not be interested--but I won't go into the details here. But in answer to your question, Rostenkowski really thought he was gonna be majority whip. That would have put him on the track to be speaker of the House, which was his goal. Albert said no, he wasn't gonna give it to Rostenkowski. Rostenkowski was surprised. And the way it happened--and this is what kind of--it was somewhat indirect--and it was kind of a weird incident--Rostenkowski, even though he wanted to be whip, he ran for a third term as Democratic caucus chairman, he thought he had no opposition, but Albert, in effect, put up Tiger Teague, a Texas Democrat to run against him. And Teague won. Rostenkowski was stunned. He was in tears because, in effect, he thought his move up the ladder of power in Congress was over.
LAMB: This is other stuff. I want to ask you--well, I'll ask you afterwards about whether or not this was well known. He also was renowned for hosting lavish parties at his spacious home in suburban...
COHEN: Talking about Hale Boggs now.
LAMB: Right—in suburban Bethesda. As the years passed, however, Boggs chafed at playing second fiddle both on Ways and Means and to the Democratic leadership. He became emotionally unstable, according to several members and reporters who dealt with him at the time. Boggs was nutty because of drugs and drink, said Neill McNeill of Time, who had been a friend. He claimed the FBI was bugging his office. He was so flaky, I was startled that he won the majority leader race. Is that well-known on the Hill?
COHEN: No. Well, it's--and I was, frankly, stunned that, not only to have the comments from Neill McNeill...
LAMB: Is he still alive, by the way?
COHEN: Yes, he is. He's retired from--several years ago--from Time magazine. Similar comments--in fairness to Neill McNeill, there are similar comments a sentence or two later from John Brademas, former Democratic member from Indiana who was majority whip, then became president of NYU. Brademas said similar things that Hale Boggs basically was acting weirdly. That combination of drugs--painkilling drugs and liquor, that he was not acting--not comporting himself on--frankly, I wasn't sure whether to put--to include these quotes in there, and I certainly don't highlight them, but you found them, and that's fair. You're a good reader. You know, Hale Boggs these days is like some former member--and I thought it was important to fill out details of lives of an important player.
LAMB: Let me read some more. `The attack on Ways and Means was abetted by Mills' behavior. The once omnipotent chairman was behaving erratically both personally and in his legislative work. Much like Boggs, he showed signs of succumbing to what has become the House drug and alcohol-laden culture.'
COHEN: You know, these were—Mills, like Boggs, like Carl Albert, they were real stalwart--they were the leaders of Congress--of the House back in the 1960s and '70s. And they all had, according to the public records, serious problems with liquor. They drank too much. They...
LAMB: So, but drugs has moved in here.
COHEN: And drugs for painkillers or for God knows whatever other reasons.
LAMB: Well, let me read some more from your book.
COHEN: And I find it very interesting, frankly, that this was the case at the time.
LAMB: Here's another one. This is a little different. It says `Rostenkowski loathed Bolling as a pompous intellectual who sneered at Ways and Means and its consensus building. Their animosity was personal and long-standing. Bolling hated Mills and the Ways and Means Committee because we had too much power, Rostenkowski said.' As I read all this, I wanted to ask you--and you hear people doing it around here--Should we go back to the old days?
COHEN: We...
LAMB: I mean, you hear people saying it around town, `Let's go back to the old days.' I mean, from what you're--what I'm reading here, I just wondered if you thought that was a good idea.
COHEN: Well, we can't go back to the old days. And you know, so it's as you know, it's a moot point. But there were aspects--I think--my experience is that there's--among folks who've been around Washington for awhile, there's a tendency to glorify everything about the good ol' days when, in fact-- and there were some good parts. Occasionally, Congress, in those days, worked well. They --it--Congress did a good job in, let's say, passing Medicare legislation. President Johnson set a goal and he achieved it. President Reagan set a goal, cut taxes in 1981. That was achieved. And Congress--you had a strong president leading and Congress followed.

And oftentimes, whether it's going to the liberal direction or conservative direction, it's good to see government function. But, you know, these are always--you know, the culture of Washington has changed. The culture of the media has changed. There's a lot more focus today on shortcomings of politicians. And you know, we read about them and hear about them in the media all the time. But I think the instance you're referring to make clear there were shortcomings even among the most influential members then. The difference--a difference was that the press didn't report it as much.
LAMB: Let me read another quote. You talked about Jack Murtha earlier. He's in the House. He's from Pennsylvania. He's been there for a lot of years. Quote, "Most members never even knew what we were doing. We did it all inside the room where the selections were made."
COHEN: Talking about the committee assignment process in which senior members of the House determine which junior member gets appointed to which influential committee. This process used to be done by the Ways and Means Committee, Rostenkowski's committee. But the reforms--the Democratic reforms of Dick Bolling and David Obey and others took the power away from the Ways and Means Committee. Democrats gave it to the leadership. But Rostenkowski really loved that process, kind of acting like a boss. And he worked very closely and effectively with Jack Murtha in determining who got on the Ways and Means Committee, who got on Appropriations Committee, which, you know, the big states, Pennsylvania, Illinois, cutting their deals. It was good old-fashioned politics.
LAMB: How many hours do you think you spent with Dan Rostenkowski to write this book?
COHEN: Oh, probably 30 or 40 hours, both in the prison and in his home in Chicago and in this temporary--in this small office that he set up in Arlington, Virginia. Obviously--and all my reporting began after--reporting for the book began after he was defeated for re-election, 1994. But, obviously, I have benefited from the years of reporting I did on Rostenkowski and on Congress while he was still there.
LAMB: Why do you think he agreed to do it with you?
COHEN: I think that he wanted his story in politics and government to be told. I think he worried--being a little--I'm guessing a little bit--but I think it's an informed guess--and this comes a little bit from his staff, who remained very sympathetic to him, he and his staff worried that he would be remembered in history as the politician who served 36 years in Congress and then went to jail. He agreed to cooperate with me, I believe, because he felt that I would write, not only about the legal problems, but that I would write about--and I have written about his very significant legislative and political career, both in Washington and in Chicago.
LAMB: You point out that he used $1.4 million of his campaign fund, that he had raised for campaigning, to pay off his legal debts. And that he had a legal defense fund when he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee where he raised another $1.4 million. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, how did he raise $1.4 million to take care of his legal expenses?
COHEN: The same way he raised $800,000 to pay for that bicentennial dinner. He went to interest groups that in many--if not most cases, worked with the Ways and Means Committee and asked them for contributions. It's legal under our system of doing business and politics here in Washington. He went to his friends and raised $3 million to pay for his legal expenses. But his--I don't know the precise figures--but his legal expenses exceeded the $3 million. He may even still owe some money. So he had to raise money somewhere to pay for his lawyers. And, obviously, once he left Congress, he lost much of the ability to raise that money.
LAMB: You wrote near the end of the book, `Yet, the sweep of history provided powerful vindication for Rostenkowski and his political style. One of the least expected events was the chaotic disarray among House Republicans that resulted in the resignation of Speaker Gingrich and his designated successor Bob Livingston.' And let me just ask you, what do you mean by the sweep of history provided powerful vindication for Rostenkowski and his political style?
COHEN: Well, some may--I say that was--I don't know if that was an overstatement or not, but what I was trying to--I was saying there is--that when Newt Gingrich left and Bob Livingston left somewhat surprisingly, the next speaker and the current speaker became Denny Hastert from Illinois, an old style, kind of get along--go along type, to a certain extent, who liked—who was, to some extent, not entirely, but Hastert believed in Congress doing its--it believes in--like Rostenkowski, to some extent, in Congress quietly doing its business out of the public spotlight, and without members attacking each other as motives, as Rostenkowski and others say Gingrich has been--was the Gingrich style. There is--you know, and Rostenkowski felt and people around him felt that bringing in Denny Hastert in the tradition of Bob Michael, the former House minority leader, also from Illinois, was a vindication of the Illinois style of bipartisanship.
LAMB: You kind of suggest all through the book that David Obey has played a major role over there in changing things.
COHEN: He was a leader and remains a leader of the reformers.
LAMB: Has he been successful?
COHEN: He achieved the reforms--he, as a leader of the reformers, achieved most of the changes that they wanted. Has it made the House a better institution? Dan Rostenkowski would say no. I guess I'd say that changes, reforms, probably were inevitable, but even after the reforms were made, both Democrats--especially Democrats--the reformers were really big D, Democratic Party reform changes. The Democrats accommodated themselves to change and some of the old practices, the old ways in which members could gain more influence by being around for a while, the influence of committee and subcommittee chairmen, that never really quite disappeared. So, yeah, some of it--the reform--and David Obey, himself, I can't speak for him, but I think Obey, himself, would say, `Yes, we achieved many--most of the reforms--or--not all, but most of the reforms, but there are still serious problems in the way the House operates.'
LAMB: Do you still like covering the Congress?
COHEN: Absolutely.
LAMB: What's the joy of it for you?
COHEN: Five hundred thirty-five members, I dedicate the book to the members of Congress, the good, the bad and the forgotten. You know, I don't need to talk to 535, but any day, any week, month, there would be dozens of members who have interesting things to say. Contrast to the White House where in my--I've never covered the White House, not on any consistent basis, but everyone at the White House, they all kind of have a company line and this is true under Bill Clinton, it was true under earlier presidents. In Congress, you get the sweep of America at any day of the week.
LAMB: Why did your book publisher put a black-and-white photo on the cover? You have any idea?
COHEN: No. It was his call and I think--I don't know. And I think it's a good representation of Rostenkowski and his kind of a gruff, to some extent belying attitude that was often associated with him in the public image.
LAMB: Richard E. Cohen's our guest, "The Pursuit of Power and the Politics--and the End of the Old Politics." And the name of the book is "Rostenkowski." Thank you very much for joining us.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.