Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide buried many House Democrats, but it did wonders for Dan Rostenkowski.

Swept away in the Republican onslaught were John Brademas, the House majority whip, and Al Ullman, who had succeeded Wilbur Mills as chairman of Ways and Means. Rostenkowski was directly in line for both jobs. He could take either one. The choice was his.

Most of the pols and pundits figured he'd take the whip post. It was the job Carl Albert had denied him years earlier and it would put him on a direct path to become speaker. Besides, a whip does exactly what Rosty was best at -- vote-counting, arm-twisting, horse-trading. He was a natural for it. On the other hand, the chairmanship of Ways and Means is a more cerebral job. You've got to study the tax code, as Mills did, and master arcane legal and economic issues. Rosty's no scholar, the smart money said. He's a lazy Chicago machine pol. He'll go for whip.

"The chairmanship offered a terrific risk of failure," Sherman recalls, "but it also offered a tremendous opportunity to mitigate the sort of burly, ethnic Daley machine image."

After a month of waffling, Rostenkowski decided to take the challenge, to prove himself as a man of substance. "I made that decision," he said a few months later, "because otherwise they'd have thought I was running away from becoming the student of tax law."

Immediately, the new chairman faced a very tough test -- Reagan's tax-cut plan. The president proposed a three-year 25 percent tax cut, with most of the benefits going to affluent taxpayers. The idea was that the rich would get richer and invest more money, which would make the economy grow. Republicans called it "supply-side economics." Rostenkowski called it "apple pie in the sky." But he knew it was very popular. People love taxtoo, so I didn't mind the way Rostenkowski sent messages. It could have been a lot worse."


When you're the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, people just love to give you money and other nice things.

Ways and Means determines who will pay taxes, and, consequently, people who dislike paying taxes frequently want to be friendly with the chairman. They're only too eager to buy him fancy dinners or fly him halfway around the world to play golf, or pay him big bucks to speak to them, or donate large sums to his campaign committee.

It's quite a temptation for any mortal. And Dan Rostenkowski did not manage to resist it. Quite the contrary. With characteristic gusto, he grabbed the goodies with both hands.

Although he had the safest of seats, Rosty raked in more than $2 million in donations to his campaign committee and his personal political action committee between 1985 and 1991. Although he is not an orator to rival Churchill, he regularly led his congressional colleagues in the collection of honoraria, which are the fees paid for speaking to special-interest groups. He was, in fact, the undisputed King of Honoraria. In 1984, he topped the list with $93,000, and he was still leading the league in 1990, the last year House members could keep honoraria, when he took in $310,000. Due to House rules, he could only keep about $27,000 per year. The rest had to go to charity. But he kept right on orating, perhaps because many of the speeches were delivered to groups convening in lovely locales with good golf courses. Rosty loves golf. During the winter, Rosty said recently. "But, you know, I learned."

At the time, he was less philosophical. It was his first test in his new job and he'd failed it. He felt awful, and he took it out on Kent Hance.

Hance was a Texas boll weevil who'd had the audacity to sponsor the Reagan bill while sitting on Rosty's committee, and the chairman decided to torment him. First, Rosty took his committee on a junket to China. Except for Hance. He wasn't invited. Then, when they got back to work, Hance found that the rollers were removed from his chair in the committee room. He had an aide put them back on. The next day they were gone again. This went on for weeks. Later, the committee took a bus trip to Baltimore. This time Rosty let Hance come along. Hance climbed on the bus and noticed that the front seats were labeled with the names of committee members, but Hance's name wasn't there. He stepped farther back on the bus and saw seats bearing the names of committee staffers, and his name wasn't there, either. He kept moving back and finally found his name -- on the seat next to the toilet.

"He was sending a message," says Hance, now back in Texas. "I understood that. I'd read stuff about that fellow Capone. He was from Chicago too, so I didn't mind the way Rostenkowski sent messages. It could have been a lot worse."


When you're the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, people just love to give you money and other nice things.

Ways and Means determines who will pay taxes, and, consequently, people who dislike paying taxes frequently want to be friendly with the chairman. They're only too eager to buy him fancy dinners or fly him halfway around the world to play golf, or pay him big bucks to speak to them, or donate large sums to his campaign committee.

It's quite a temptation for any mortal. And Dan Rostenkowski did not manage to resist it. Quite the contrary. With characteristic gusto, he grabbed the goodies with both hands.

Although he had the safest of seats, Rosty raked in more than $2 million in donations to his campaign committee and his personal political action committee between 1985 and 1991. Although he is not an orator to rival Churchill, he regularly led his congressional colleagues in the collection of honoraria, which are the fees paid for speaking to special-interest groups. He was, in fact, the undisputed King of Honoraria. In 1984, he topped the list with $93,000, and he was still leading the league in 1990, the last year House members could keep honoraria, when he took in $310,000. Due to House rules, he could only keep about $27,000 per year. The rest had to go to charity. But he kept right on orating, perhaps because many of the speeches were delivered to groups convening in lovely locales with good golf courses. Rosty loves golf. During the winter, he can frequently be found golfing, on some lobbyist's tab, in such warm places as Miami and Maui and Palm Springs and Palm Beach.

Of course, none of these activities was illegal. And, as Rosty's friends are eager to point out, nobody is buying the chairman's vote. No way. In fact, Rosty sometimes takes a perverse delight in accepting a campaign contribution and a free golf junket from some group and then getting up and telling them that they've been too greedy and he's going to close their favorite tax loophole. In such circumstances, he likes to pass on a bit of Chicago folk wisdom: "Pigs get fat," he says, "but hogs get butchered."

Of course, Rosty has also been known to help those who help him.

In 1984, in a late-night conference committee meeting, Rostenkowski inserted into a tax bill a provision that helped a few hundred commodities traders -- most of them from Chicago and many of them contributors to his campaign committee -- in a dispute they were having with the IRS. The provision, called a "giveaway" by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, was worth at least $300 million to the traders, according to Common Cause, the Washington watchdog group.

In 1986, annuity brokers, upset that the Senate version of a tax bill had closed their favorite loophole, held a fund-raiser in Los Angeles and collected $83,000 for Rosty's personal PAC. When the chairman emerged from the subsequent House-Senate conference committee, the loophole was safe. Newspapers cried foul, but Rosty's spokesman said there was "no quid pro quo."

And then there's Presidential Towers, a 2,346-unit apartment complex in Chicago. In 1980, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Rostenkowski inserted into a tax bill a provision that permitted Presidential Towers to receive a $159 million federally insured mortgage without meeting a federal requirement that 20 percent of the apartments be reserved for low-to-moderate-income residents. Two years later, he inserted into another bill a provision that saved the project an estimated $7 million in taxes. Rosty said he was just trying to help rebuild a blighted part of Chicago, but the Sun-Times noted that one of the project's developers was Daniel J. Shannon, Rosty's close friend and former partner in a real estate venture, who was then running the chairman's blind trust investments.

The blind trust did very well, later earning Rostenkowski more than $50,000, according to the Sun-Times, on an investment of only $200. Presidential Towers did less well, later defaulting on its $159 million federally insured mortgage, the largest default in the history of the Federal Housing Administration.


In 1983, a black man won the Chicago Democratic primary for mayor and a sizable portion of the city's Caucasian population panicked.

It happened because the old Democratic machine was divided: One faction supported incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne while another backed Richie Daley, son of the legendary Boss, who died in 1976. With the white vote split, Harold Washington, a black congressman running on an anti-machine platform, won a narrow plurality and became the official Democratic nominee in a city that hadn't elected a Republican mayor in more than 50 years. This led many white ward committeemen to do what they had previously considered unthinkable -- endorse a Republican, Bernie Epton. "The people in my area just don't want a black mayor," said one defecting ward boss. "It's as simple as that."

Dan Rostenkowski, boss of the 32nd Ward, was not among those bolting the party, but his tepid endorsement of Washington came late and lacked anything approaching enthusiasm. Meanwhile, many Rostenkowski precinct workers were canvassing the ward, urging voters to support Epton. One of those voters was Luis Gutierrez, now a freshman in the House. Gutierrez, who supported Washington, got so angry that Democratic precinct workers were asking him to vote Republican that he chased them down the street, yelling to neighbors, "Don't listen to them!"

During the campaign, Gary Rivlin, then a reporter for a Chicago weekly, called the 32nd Ward office pretending to be a confused voter and asking for advice. He was urged to vote for Epton. Rivlin, author of Fire on the Prairie, a book on Chicago in the Washington era, blames Rostenkowski for the actions of his precinct workers. "If he had made it clear that they couldn't work for Epton, they wouldn't have worked for him," he says. "These guys are cowering in their boots at the ward boss. He controls their jobs."

On the day before the election, one of Rostenkowski's precinct captains pulled a gun on a Washington campaign worker named Sal Quinones. He threatened to kill Quinones, and pulled the trigger -- twice. The gun didn't fire, and the precinct captain fled, according to a lawsuit filed by Quinones. Following a jury trial, Quinones won a civil judgment of more than $100,000.

It was a time when the bitterly divided city desperately needed leadership, Rivlin says, and Rostenkowski failed to provide it. "To me, pretending to help his party's own nominee while clandestinely working for the other side in an overtly racial fight is at least as scandalous as any charges of corruption."

Asked for comment on the actions of the precinct captains, Rostenkowski's spokesman said only: "He supported Harold Washington in 1983."

Angry at Rostenkowski, Gutierrez, then a social worker, decided to run against him for ward committeeman in 1984. He thought he had a decent chance to win because he is Puerto Rican, as is a large segment of the ward. But he soon found that ethnic ties are no match for the Rostenkowski machine.

"No Latino businessman would put my posters up. None," he recalls. "I'd hit them with ethnic pride, and they'd look at me, like, Are you crazy? Against Dan Rostenkowski? Who the hell are you? You'll be gone tomorrow and I'll get a call from his people the next day. No thanks."

Despite such talk, Gutierrez campaigned avidly, attacking Rosty as an evil Reaganite. As the campaign entered the final weeks, he could see no evidence of any Rostenkowski activity. Maybe Rosty was overconfident, he thought. Maybe he could be beaten.

Late one Saturday night, after a long day of wooing voters, Gutierrez went to bed thinking he might actually win.

The next morning, he stepped outside and saw that every house on his block -- every single one except his! -- had a big, bright blue-and-orange Rostenkowski sign in the window.

And it wasn't just his street. They were all over the ward. Rosty's precinct captains had spent weeks quietly getting permission to put up the signs and then, in a one-day blitz, they'd covered the ward.

That night, as Gutierrez lay in bed and shut his eyes, all he could see were those damn blue-and-orange signs.


Just as he was about to go on nationwide television to deliver the Democrats' response to President Reagan's speech on tax reform, Dan Rostenkowski leaped out of his chair, yelling, "I'm not going to do it!"

The camera crew gasped. Then Rosty smiled and said he was only kidding. He sat back down and delivered the best speech of his life.

"Working families file their tax forms with the nagging feeling that they're the biggest suckers and chumps in the world," he said. And they were right, he added, because the rich could move their money "from one tax shelter to another." If Ronald Reagan really wanted to reform that system, Rosty said, he'd be glad to help. But it wouldn't be easy, so he urged viewers to send messages of support. "Even if you can't spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather -- Rosty. Just address it to Rosty, Washington, D.C. The Post Office will get it to me."

Rostenkowski was dead serious that night in May 1985. He was truly determined to reform the tax code. As he knew better than almost anybody, the code was riddled with loopholes. He'd helped put a lot of them in there. The 1981 tax bill -- created in the infamous bidding war between Rosty and Reagan -- contained the largest collection of tax breaks for business in history. As a result, 128 large, profitable corporations, such household names as GE, Dow, Boeing and Lockheed, paid no federal taxes for at least one year in the early '80s. In 1983 alone, 30,000 individuals earning more than $250,000 paid less than 5 percent of their income in taxes. Meanwhile, the middle class got stuck with the bill. Rosty saw the pay stubs of his daughters, who were airline flight attendants, and he was shocked at how much was withheld in taxes. It just wasn't fair.

But fairness wasn't the only reason why Rostenkowski was so eager to pass a tax reform bill. He had a personal agenda too. After humiliating defeats on tax bills in 1981 and 1982, he was determined to prove himself a chairman who could get things done. And, as he told reporters over and over, he wanted to show that he was not just a hack pol from Chicago: "A lot of people assume that because I'm from the big city and from quote unquote a machine operation, that all I want to do is play politics. I want to be a patriot too."

He'd picked a tough way to prove himself. Every loophole in the tax law had its own constituency, its own lobby, its own claque of congressmen. But Rosty was obsessed. For the next 18 months, the man once dismissed as lazy worked tirelessly for tax reform. He held months of public hearings. He took his committee on retreats with economists. He held committee meetings on weekends. He twisted arms, he cut deals, he formed coalitions, he cajoled, he reasoned, he begged, he threatened. He used every trick he'd learned in a quarter-century of inside politicking to get a tax reform bill through the Ways and Means Committee. "He played the committee like Yehudi Menuhin plays the Stradivarius," said Henson Moore, a Louisiana Republican on Ways and Means. "It was a virtuoso performance."

Then, when it came time to get the bill through the House, Rosty used another weapon: his power to bestow -- or withhold -- "transition rules." These are little amendments put into the bill, supposedly to aid a struggling business's transition from the old tax law to the new one. In reality, they are special favors granted to favored constituents of the representatives who support the bill. Rosty played these too, like a maestro.

One Saturday afternoon, recalls Ray McGrath -- who was then a congressman from New York and one of the few Republicans on Ways and Means supporting Rosty's bill -- the chairman called him at home. "Look, we have some water projects in New York state that are looking for transition rules," Rosty said. He rattled them off. They were all in Republican districts. "Should I put them in?"

"Sure," McGrath replied.

"I think you should call these guys," Rosty said. If these representatives wanted transition rules, they'd have to vote for the bill.

So McGrath phoned his Republican colleagues. "The chairman just called to tell me he wants to include this in the transition section of the bill," he'd say. "And he wants to know how you're gonna vote on the bill."

The replies were agonized. "Oh, Christ, he's not going to make me do that!"

"Yes, he is," McGrath said.

In the end, there were more than 600 transition rules worth $10 billion in the tax reform bill, which was a new record. It was ironic to find hundreds of tiny loopholes in a bill designed to close loopholes, but Rosty didn't mind. "Danny's perspective," recalls Downey, "was that you had to buy people off to vote for this thing."

Finally, after all the wheeling and dealing, the bill passed the House and then the Senate and was signed by President Reagan in 1986. It was far from perfect -- it did nothing to reduce the deficit, for instance -- but it was easily the most sweeping tax overhaul since World War II. It closed a multitude of loopholes, ended the ability of profit-making companies to avoid taxes, shifted a large portion of the tax burden from individuals to corporations, reduced the number of tax brackets, cut the top tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent, and removed more than 4 million low-income workers from the tax rolls.

"The 1986 tax law was the best thing that happened to the tax code structurally," says Robert McIntyre, head of Citizens for Tax Justice, the labor-backed group that had blown the whistle on those 128 corporations that had escaped taxes in the '80s. "Rostenkowski is a hero."

Of course, the bill was not universally popular, particularly the tax cut for upper-income individuals. "Tax cuts were given to the high rollers of this country," says Andy Jacobs, who voted against the bill. "It was another tax shift from the high rollers to the low rollers -- to the middle-income people."

Overall, though, reviews were good, and headlines heralded a new Rosty: "Rostenkowski becomes a star on tax reform," said the Chicago Tribune. "Tax Vote Overhauls Rostenkowski's Image," said The Washington Post. A cartoon in the Chicago Sun-Times showed Rosty in a rocking chair patching the loopholes in the flag. The caption read: "Betsy Ross-tenkowski."

Rosty loved it. He reveled in his rise from hack to hero. "I wanted to prove to the rest of the House," he said, "that maybe Wilbur Mills was a great chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, but if you take on the Big One and you can accomplish it, you're the chairman."


In 1989, Dan Rostenkowski stood up in public and spoke the unspeakable: "I want to announce that I'm for the pay raise."

Incredible! This was shortly after a presidential commission recommended raising congressional pay from $89,500 to $135,000, and the taxpayers responded with roars of protest. After that, you couldn't find a pol who wanted a raise. They were falling all over each other to say that they didn't deserve it, they didn't want it and they wouldn't accept it. It was a display of hypocrisy that disgusted Rosty.

So he did what he seldom does: He introduced a bill he knew would fail, just to make a point. It advocated allowing members of Congress to select any salary between $89,500 and $135,000.

"I would personally sign in at the highest end of the scale," he said. "If the people of the Eighth Congressional District of Illinois conclude that having the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, in his 30th year of experience . . . , is not worth top dollar to them, then they will be free to make that clear in the next election. In the following Congress, they would have the opportunity to address their grievances to a freshman member with a minor committee assignment and relatively limited means of getting the job done. On the other hand, he or she would come at the bargain rate."

Rosty was riding high in those days. He was the domineering leader of the most powerful committee in Congress. He'd helped to pass a major tax bill, a welfare bill, a trade bill and a bill that saved Social Security from insolvency. A poll of 400 congressional staffers had named him the "most effective legislator in Congress." He'd given more than a million dollars in honoraria to various charities. He'd lectured at Harvard. He was a regular on TV -- and not on lowbrow slugfests like "The McLaughlin Group" but on "MacNeil-Lehrer." The guy from the 32nd Ward was a PBS savant!

So Rosty decided to throw a party. It was a celebration of the bicentennial of the Ways and Means Committee, although a lot of people said (behind his back) that it was really a celebration of Dan Rostenkowski.

Rosty had great plans for the Ways and Means gala. This wasn't going to be one of those parties where everybody brings a six-pack and the host sets out some chips and dip. No way. This was going to be a high-tone affair worthy of his august committee.

Such parties don't come cheap. So Dan Rostenkowski did one of the things he does best: He got on the phone and asked big corporations to donate money.

And they ponied up more than $768,000.

"Who doesn't want to be on my good side?" Rosty joked.

"Everybody wants to be on the good side of the chairman of this particular committee," said Larry Armour, spokesman for American Express, one of the corporate donors.

You can buy a lot of party for $768,000, and Rosty did. There was a lunch and a cocktail reception and a formal dinner. There were party favors -- gold cuff links and stickpins and hardcover copies of a specially commissioned 526-page illustrated history of the committee. And after dinner, there was a preview of a specially commissioned $500,000 documentary on the committee -- a film that showed, among other things, Wilbur Mills gushing about what a "fine fellow" Dan Rostenkowski is.

The party was big fun for Rosty, but the rest of the Bush years were not. It was an era of gridlock and frustration. Rosty was promoting his "Rostenkowski challenge" -- a plan to balance the budget by freezing spending and raising income taxes on the wealthy and excise taxes on gas, tobacco and booze -- but Bush had promised "no new taxes" and so the plan died.

By 1991, Rosty was confiding to friends that he was seriously considering retirement. He was 63 and getting tired. A lot of his old pals in Congress were gone, replaced by the new breed of blow-dried pols that Rosty loved to grumble about. And Bush seemed like a shoo-in for reelection, which promised more gridlock. The job, he said, just wasn't that much fun anymore.

And there was one other factor: If he got out, he could, under House rules, keep his accumulated campaign contributions. If he stayed in beyond 1993, he could not. The sum in question was more than $1 million.

That factor turned out to be the deciding one, but not the way his critics had predicted. "I think he ran again," says his old friend Tom Lyons, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, "because he didn't want people to say he took the million dollars."

He said as much himself: He wanted to go down in history as the guy who reformed the tax law, not as the guy who quit Congress for a million bucks.

So he tossed away a million-dollar bankroll and entered what he knew would be the toughest race of his life. His district, which had been redrawn after the 1990 census, was two-thirds new, and it now included a slice of the lake front, home of white-collar liberals who were not his natural constituency. His opponent in the Democratic primary was a lake-front liberal named Dick Simpson, a political science professor and former alderman, who was bashing Rosty as incumbency incarnate, the honoraria-grabbing king of "back-room deals and payoffs."

So Rosty did something he'd never done before: He hired a political consultant. The consultant, David Axelrod, designed a series of radio ads that ran for eight weeks, highlighting how much federal pork Rosty had brought back to Chicago over the years. Rostenkowsi also did something else he hadn't done in years: He actually campaigned, attending community meetings and shaking hands at shopping centers. It worked. He didn't collect his usual 70 percent of the vote, but he beat Simpson, 57 percent to 43 percent.

In November, he trounced his Republican opponent, a political neophyte named Elias Zenkich, whose novel campaign strategy was to legally change his middle name to "Non-Incumbent."

Rosty was thrilled at the prospect of working with Bill Clinton, the first Democratic president in 12 years. "I love this guy," he told Downey. "He just wants to get it done." Which is the highest praise in Rosty's vocabulary. The chairman was particularly excited about helping Clinton pass a health reform bill. That would be "a tremendous trophy to hang on the wall of a so-called machine city politician," he said, "the crowning glory of a success story."

But that shot at glory might never come. By the time he was sworn in for his 18th term in Congress last January, Rostenkowski was knee-deep in scandal.


The scandal crept up slowly on Dan Rostenkowski.

The first inkling came in the spring of 1992, when a grand jury investigating the troubled House Post Office issued subpoenas for six years of Rostenkowski's office expense records -- "including, but not limited to, vouchers for postal stamps" -- as well as similar records from two Pennsylvania Democrats, Joe Kolter and Austin Murphy. "I will be happy to cooperate," Rostenkowski said in a written statement. "I am interested in learning what this is all about."

A few weeks later, he learned: Grand jury sources told reporters that James C. Smith, a supervisor at the House Post Office, had testified, under a grant of immunity, that Rostenkowski had skimmed about $20,000 in transactions disguised as official stamp purchases. Rosty termed the charge "totally untrue."

Two months later, Rostenkowski, Kolter and Murphy refused to appear before the grand jury, citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. But the grand jury kept working, subpoenaing more than a dozen Rostenkowski aides in Chicago and Washington -- some of them several times -- as well as the chairman's daughters, and the records of his reelection committee. Rosty called the probe a "fishing expedition."

In December 1992, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a huge front-page headline: "Rosty's Phantom Office." The story revealed that Rostenkowski's campaign committee paid him $1,250 a month -- more than $73,000 since 1986 -- to rent office space in a building owned by Rosty and his sister. The storefront office, located in a building that abuts Rosty's house, had no phone and no sign, and appeared to be "little more than a mail drop." Rosty's sister, Gladys, who lives above the office, told the Sun-Times that it had been vacant for years but Rosty said it was a "normal office" used to store campaign materials. Asked who staffed the office, he replied: "I am the staff."

A month later, the Sun-Times revealed that Rostenkowski had used more than $68,000 in taxpayers' money to lease three cars that later became his personal property. After that, the grand jury subpoenaed the congressman's car records.

Pressure was intensifying. Common Cause asked the House ethics committee to investigate Rostenkowski. A New York Times editorial seconded that notion and urged House Democrats to "call on Mr. Rostenkowski to step aside as chairman." Worse, a Chicago Tribune editorial hit Rosty right in his pride: "The boss of all bosses operates like a shifty-eyed precinct captain on the make . . . These are activities one would expect of a small-time ward heeler, not a figure of such influence and stature."

Rosty took these blows and soldiered on, helping to shepherd Bill Clinton's deficit reduction package through a reluctant House.

Then, in July, he was hit with worse news: Robert Rota, former House postmaster, pleaded guilty to two counts of embezzlement and one count of conspiracy in connection with an alleged scheme to help two House members convert congressional expense money into cash. The members were identified in legal documents only as "Congressman A" and "Congressman B," but they were easily identifiable as Rostenkowski and Kolter, respectively. Rota -- who had twice previously testified that no such scheme existed -- now claimed that between 1985 and 1991, he had given Rosty $21,300 in cash in return for expense vouchers for postage stamps.

According to the indictment, Rota explained the scheme to the newly promoted Smith "on or about" July 26, 1989 -- which was two days after Rosty's gala Ways and Means party: "Congressman A took care of them, so they had to take care of Congressman A in return." It almost sounded like Paddy Bauler.

A couple of days after Rota's plea, Smith talked to the Sun-Times about Rosty: "He is a larger than life figure, like some Shakespearean figure, a noble man with a tragic flaw. It's not like this is an evil man we're dealing with here. He gives thousands of dollars to charities. He's a good congressman. He just has some human frailties."

The next day Rosty called a press conference in the Ways and Means Committee room, the scene of so many of his triumphs, and read a brief statement: "I want to make it absolutely clear that I have committed no crime and have engaged in no illegal or unethical conduct." He seemed shaky and he sounded winded. He took no questions, citing his attorneys' advice.

Those attorneys were costing him a lot of money -- more than $350,000 for his own legal bills and those of his subpoenaed staffers. For a year, he paid those bills out of his campaign coffers. Then, in late August, he set up a legal defense fund and began soliciting contributions from sympathetic individuals, corporations and unions. It was yet another way, critics chided, for special interests to do a favor for the chairman.

For the next two months, as Rosty waited to see if he'd be indicted, his many friends defended his integrity, worried about him, took him out to dinner, tried to cheer him up. "He talks about his stomach being hamburger," says Downey. "It's gotten him down. How could it not? Thirty-five years in Congress and his legacy will only be that he chiseled on some stamps?"

"The last time I saw him," says Ray McGrath, "I looked him in the eye and said, 'How are you doing?' and he said, 'How the {expletive} you think I'm doing?' "

Rostenkowski doesn't talk much about his feelings, but every once in a while they slip out. One night, after they watched the movie "In the Line of Fire," Downey drove the chairman back to that little apartment he stays in when he's in Washington. They sat in the car awhile, talking about how the city had changed, about buildings that had come and gone during their years here. Then, out of the blue, Rosty said: "Jesus, Tom, this is awful. It's killing me."


"I've been talking to your friends and your adversaries -- "

"Tell me what my adversaries are saying about me," Rostenkowski interrupted.

"They say you're corrupt, you're out of touch with your district, you won't win again."

"I'm out of touch with my district? That {ticks} me off," he said in his famously gruff voice. "Because I'm trying to lead, and I'm not trying to cater to the special interests, because I try to put packages together that ultimately will help people over the long haul, they think I'm out of touch. That really makes me mad."

He was sitting in one of his offices in the Capitol, a tiny alcove with room for just a blue divan and a couple of chairs. He wore a red-and-white striped shirt, a blue tie, gray slacks and brown loafers. A yellow pencil stuck out of his right shoe, which rested on his left knee. He was perched on a white chair that was set into a recessed window so that the royal blue curtains hung at his side, almost as if he were on a throne. He'd agreed to talk -- for just half an hour or so -- with a reporter who'd been interviewing his friends and adversaries for weeks. But there was one ground rule: no questions about the stamps scandal. And now, before a single question was asked, he'd launched into a monologue on his political philosophy.

"If there's an emphasis, it's getting as much done as possible," he said. "I've always felt that way. I'll do 60 percent and let the other 40 percent go for another day. But I'll get something done. I don't like to sacrifice the possible in pursuit of the perfect."

He crossed his legs, took the pencil from his shoe, tapped it on his lips, used it to prod his huge, creased face. Soon he was off on a spirited defense of pork-barreling. "I'm not ashamed of doing that," he said. "If somebody on Public Works wants to get money for paving a highway in Texas, why shouldn't I try to get money for paving a highway in the state of Illinois?"

Then he launched into colorful tales of Dick Daley and Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. When Rosty describes Johnson, he sounds like other people describing Rostenkowski: "He wasn't the most personable guy or the most likable guy, but boy, he knew how to move this building. It was: 'Lyndon's done a few things for you, now it's your turn to do a few things for Lyndon.' I enjoyed Lyndon Johnson."

"What about Wilbur Mills? What did you learn from him?"

"I learned that you gotta be patient. I learned that -- well, times are so different now. When Wilbur Mills wrote a health bill, it took him four years. I gotta do it in three weeks. Everything is pushed against a crisis these days."

A bell rang indicating a vote in the House and Rosty's aide said, "Ten minutes."

"I've been chairman of this committee for -- what? -- 13 years. Wilbur Mills was chair for about 16 or 18 years. I'll put my record of accomplishment, of legislative gain, against his record and any other chairman's record."

"What is your biggest accomplishment?"

"Oh, the '86 tax reform act, no question about it," he said. He mentioned other bills -- welfare, trade, Social Security -- but kept returning to the tax bill. "Tax reform was kind of a throwaway until I got serious about it. And I'll tell you the truth, if I'd have known how complicated, and how much of my life I was going to spend on it, I don't think I would have done it."

"Why did you do it?"

"Because that was going to establish if I was chairman of the committee or not," he said, his voice booming. "Don't forget, my first year and a half with Ronald Reagan was devastating."

Another bell rang and the aide said, "Five minutes."

"I really didn't think I was going to stay around here as long as I did," he said. "I figured I'd put in maybe five or seven or eight years as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and get out. Go into business."

"Why didn't you?"

"I don't know." He voice softened almost to a whisper. "I made a big mistake."

"Why was it a mistake?"

"Well, I don't know." He laughed. "I got all kinds of problems now."

"With those problems hanging over your head, is it less fun?"

"Yeah, it's less fun. It's something I gotta be concerned with."

He talked about how he watches people recognize him in public places and then quickly avert their eyes. He wonders if they're thinking about the stamps scandal. "You just become more aware of yourself when you've got this cloud. And you interpret things differently . . .

"I don't worry about health care as the last thing I do when I go to bed these days," he said. "I don't worry about NAFTA as the last thing I do when I go to bed. I think of, first of all, my image in the future: What are they going to say about Danny Rostenkowski? . . . It preys on me, but the fact of the matter is: I gotta get some things done."

Another bell rang and the aide said, "One minute."

"I gotta get some things done and I'm just tunnel vision on trying to leave a good record."

Then he stood up, shook hands and lumbered off to the House chamber to vote.