“Dear Rosty,” the telegram on Rep. Dan Rostenkowski’s desk read. “Your response to the President was the greatest . . . . I’m one of those who feel like suckers when we pay our taxes.”
Whether they were addressed to “Rosty,” or, just as frequently, to “Roosty,” “Rep. Rospenkowski,” “Rostencowski” or “Roseenkowski,” the mostly favorable cards, letters and telegrams have been pouring into the office of the House Ways and Means Committee chairman since his televised response Tuesday to President Reagan’s tax reform plan.
Although he is a 27-year House veteran and the head of the panel that must pass on all tax legislation, the Illinois Democrat hardly has been a household name outside his native Chicago, where he learned to swap patronage and favors from the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, his political mentor.
But Rostenkowski’s low-key, measured television performance--ending with a folksy appeal for “Dear Rosty” mail voicing frustration with the present tax system--has thrust the gruff, burly representative into the national limelight as the man who could decide the fate and form of tax reform if it is to come this year.
More importantly for Rostenkowski, 57, his eloquence on national television may help him shed the image of a “machine” hack and catapult him either into the House Speakership when current Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) retires in two years or into the mayor’s office in Chicago, the highest aspiration of most Windy City politicians.
With Democrats, Republicans and media alike suddenly gushing over him, Rostenkowski has been quick to capitalize on the attention. On Thursday, he posed with his fan mail for television and newspaper photographers. Meanwhile, his staff distributed shiny new “Write Rosty” buttons around Capitol Hill, one of which found its way onto the lapel of Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, a Republican, when he outlined the President’s program for Rostenkowski’s committee.
Although they contend that Rostenkowski’s abilities have long been underestimated by his colleagues, even some of the congressman’s most ardent supporters expressed surprise at the image he projected on television.
‘Never Had Tough Campaign’
“Everybody was shocked at how well he did considering the pressure he was under,” said William Daley, the 36-year-old son of the late mayor. “He’s never had a tough campaign so he never had to use media before.”
Rostenkowski, whose father and grandfather were both powerful Democratic politicians in Chicago, was a favorite of the elder Daley, who ran the famed party machine in Chicago with an iron fist for more than 20 years until his death in 1976. In addition to handpicking Rostenkowski for a congressional seat in 1958, Daley also installed him as party boss in the heavily Polish Northwest Side ward where he still lives and spends almost every weekend.
“He used to keep Daley in stitches,” recalled Chicago Alderman Roman Pucinski, who once served in the House alongside Rostenkowski. “Daley loved him like his own son . . . . His loyalty was impeccable.”
On Ways and Means, which until a few years ago dispensed committee assignments, Rostenkowski served as Daley’s point man, ensuring that Chicago Democrats won clout-heavy slots. Never considered a tax expert, Rostenkowski rose to the committee chairmanship in 1981 and promptly was embarrassed by Reagan, who worked around him to pass a sweeping tax cut.
But analysts say that the wheeling-and-dealing political instincts he learned in Chicago could prove to be more of an asset to Rostenkowski in the tax reform debate than knowing the ins and outs of the tax code.
“He’s a very smart man, a very savvy politician,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist who monitors Congress for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “The only way anybody is going to get a bill out is by making a lot of deals--big and small.”
And despite his pledge to push tax simplification, Rostenkowski has not previously forged a reputation as a champion of reform. For example, during the Administration of former President Jimmy Carter, he opposed Carter’s attempts to trim deductions for expense account meals, a favorite target of tax reformers.