- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2000

It's been two years since Dan Rostenkowski left Oxford Oxford Federal Penitentiary, that is, where the once mighty, not to mention mighty corrupt, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee served 17 months for helping himself to the public kitty. But what was taxpayer money for if not to pay for mowing the lawn at Rosty's summer house, keeping the books on the family insurance business, photographing family weddings, remodeling the house, and buying costly gifts? As the remorseless Rosty once put it, there was "enormous difficulty" in determining whether expenses were "congressional, political or personal."

Having pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, Rostenkowski avoided other charges brought against him, including obstructing justice, lying to Congress and pocketing federal funds and campaign money in a pattern of corruption that spanned most of his 36 years on the Hill. As Judge Norma Holloway Johnson said at his sentencing in 1996, "The guilty pleas don't reflect the breadth of your crimes. In your important position, you capriciously pursued a course of personal gain for you, your family, and your friends. You have stained them, as well as yourself. The burden you and your family [will suffer], will be the burden of conscience, the burden of disgrace that will always be associated with your tenure in Congress."

Always? Rostenkowski may well have spent the last couple of years out of the jug "kind of looking at my shoes and my belly button," as he told the New York Times this week, but he now seems to be wearing his "burden" lightly. In fact, disgrace and conscience have been less on his mind than "how people would accept me." Wonder no more. Rosty has been rehabilitated, if not by the penal system (he remains wholly unremorseful), then by an all-forgiving, all-forgetting Washington establishment.

Since October, when he first returned to the District, Rostenkowski has become a familiar face, surfacing at Morton's, on "Hardball," and even at the American Enterprise Institute. The New York Times, meanwhile, just ran the sweetest little interview sprinkled with such words as "gleaming, twinkling" (to describe Rosty's eyes), and "trim, stylish" (to describe Rosty's appearance), and "penance" and "sabbatical" (to describe Rosty's prison term which only came about, as the newspaper of record put it, because the former representative used "taxpayer money to buy chairs for his friends and to hire people to mow his lawn.").

Still, Rosty's own words are best on the subject at hand himself. Explaining the ease with which he has returned to the scene of his corruption, he said, "People remember that there was a certainty and stability in Rostenkowski that there isn't today." Napoleon complex, anyone? His description of his crimes is equally rich: "Giving gifts away," he said, face apparently straight. It would seem that Rosty, pure soul, was simply too generous for this world. "Maybe I was more extravagant than anybody else," he added. "But then again" get this "I was a bigger man than everybody else."

Does an ego that large require a license? You may think that it's all twinkling eyes, Morton's and stylish turtlenecks, but Rosty has his secret sorrows. He hasn't the emotional fortitude to visit the old Ways and Means Committee room, now the domain of Rep. Bill Archer, Texas Republican who was, as even the New York Times noted, long barred from Rostenkowski's committee negotiations. "Can you imagine how my heart would have broken if I was defeated but I was still in charge?" Rosty asks, verging on the Shylockian. "The salve in my defeat is that I can't picture myself sitting to the right of Bill Archer and listening to him vacillate." The horror.

If he isn't what you call gracious in defeat, he does display a certain resilience in finding his own personal silver lining in the 1994 election that left his party the minority on Capitol Hill a defeat to which he contributed much. But that's ancient history. These days, the man is feted by his old pals from the Ways and Means Committee, who talk of organizing an "alumni association." He lectures corporate boards and consults. The New York Times calls him "debonair." So much for "the burden of disgrace" Judge Johnson not so long ago predicted would "always" be his.

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