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Remembering Dan Rostenkowski

The former congressman and his sympathetic friends in the press.

3:43 PM, Aug 12, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The death this week of 82-year-old Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Reagan years, reminds me of Cokie Roberts, of all people. And leads me to think that Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters – and congressional Democrats in general – are in greater political peril than they realize.

Remembering Dan Rostenkowski

Allow me to explain. In the mid-1990s, when Rostenkowski was finally convicted on corruption charges, and dispatched to federal prison, the media establishment in Washington was very nearly united – in praise of Rostenkowski. "Rosty," a burly, amiable, two-fisted Chicago pol, had served in the House for 18 terms and assiduously cultivated the people who wrote about politics for the Washington Post, covered Congress in the news magazines, and blathered on NPR. "I would hate to see Rosty end up in prison," said David S. Broder, dean of Washington columnists. "My sympathies are entirely with Rosty."

The bureau chief for Rostenkowski's hometown newspaper, Jon Margolis of the Chicago Tribune, was more indignant than sympathetic: On a TV chat show he called Rostenkowski's legal troubles "a bizarre perversion of the judicial process." And Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio and ABC's This Week with Sam and Cokie (now there was a title!), and reliable bellwether of inside-the-Beltway sentiment, was especially saddened: "I've known Dan Rostenkowski for more than 30 years," she told her TV audience, "and consider him a friend, so I am not completely impartial about this."

By contrast, the ethics charges against Representatives Rangel and Waters, which could easily lead (at the least) to their departure from Congress after umpteen terms, have generated little if any sympathy in the press. Even Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has thrown them under the bus, actually lampooning Maxine Waters's invocation of the race card in her influence-peddling case. Only Jonathan Capeheart, a Washington Post editorial writer, has mounted what might be considered a defense of Waters (not Rangel) with these stalwart syllables: "The bald sense of entitlement in Congress that has come to light over the past two years is, to my mind, much more egregious than anything Waters stands accused of."

Which, in rhetoric class, is called damning with faint praise.

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