Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski's America

Synopsis

The story of Dan Rostenkowski's rise and fall provides one of the keys to how power is sought, won, exercised, and distributed in contemporary America, argues political journalist James L. Merriner.

A literal son of the Chicago political machine, Rostenkowski was installed in politics by his father, Alderman Joseph P. Rostenkowski, and by his mentor, Mayor Richard J. Daley. In his thirty-six-year congressional career, he served nine presidents, forming close friendships with many of them. His legislative masterpiece was the 1986 tax reform law. Eight years later, he was indicted on federal charges for misusing tax dollars and campaign funds.

In his dealings with the man who tumbled dramatically from his high position as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee all the way down to a cell in a federal prison in Wisconsin, Merriner found Rostenkowski candid, straightforward, and authentic -- "except when it came to his own finances". Rostenkowski is not a complex man in need of psychoanalysis on the part of his biographer, and Merriner does not indulge in much of that. Purely, simply, and openly, Rostenkowski wanted power. He wanted wealth. He got both, and Merriner shows us how.

Merriner sees mythic qualities in Rostenkowski, characterizing him as the "tall bold slugger" of Carl Sandburg's 1916 poem about Chicago. Noting that this master politician climbed to fantastic peaks only to fall hard and fast, Merriner points out that "Rostenkowski's life ascended from power in the political-science sense to tragedy in the classical sense". The Justice Department and the electorate sacrificed Rostenkowski as an embodiment of the excesses of big government. Like the Greek chorusof tragedy, major media reported the scandal to the masses.

Yet Merriner does not strain to make his subject fit a classical mold. He tells instead the "story of a great man who was also a little man, a statesman and a cro