Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ways and Means

Posted on Huffington Post - Aug. 13, 2010

By Steve Daley

In the death of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Chicago, there is for some of us a kind of guilty pleasure.

The obits have struggled to give the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee his due as a legislator, as a master of reaching bipartisan consensus on the thorniest of tax and entitlement issues.

But the overlay, as he understood and predicted, was indictment, loss of power, felony conviction and time served. “Powerful, Corrupt” is the headline writer’s shorthand, and that is fair enough in its way.

Perhaps society benefited from Rostenkowski’s conviction on two counts of mail fraud and the 17 months he spent in a federal lockup, winding up in a Salvation Army halfway house before his release. But this society will have to get a good deal more saintly before some of us think so.

As a reporter and columnist, I didn’t know Rostenkowski very well. Many of my colleagues, particularly in Chicago, knew him far better.

But I had time to observe him in his role as a committee chairman and there is this:

Rostenkowski came to Washington with a purpose. He did not come here to tell us how much he loved Jesus or to sit on cable television and impugn the motives of others.

The only worthwhile members of Congress are those who come to the place with that sense of purpose, whether you agree with that purpose or not. And you can get a good argument their estimable numbers are shrinking.

Rosty wanted power and influence and he wanted to get things done. It took him a while to get to his chairmanship but by any standard, by any measure, he succeeded at getting things done.

He was imperious and greedy, arrogant and tribal and, if you spent time on Capitol Hill, you understood that he was also widely respected and much beloved.

“Everybody has a district,” he said to me once. “Everybody had to go home and explain what they did here. Understanding that is fundamental.”

Ways and Means was not run as a democracy, but Rostenkowski understood the fears and ambitions of his colleagues, especially those on his committee.

In a sense he was all clich├ęs. He combined a love of the back-room deal with that hoariest of congressional bromides – be a workhorse, not a show horse. Denizens of the Capitol, including many reporters, delighted in his bumptious, brash behavior and in his effectiveness.

I recall watching him deliver a floor speech – a relative rarity – on a bill to raise the pay of House members. Most of his colleagues wanted the money, of course, but they cowered in fear of constituent phone calls and the wrath of the opinion makers.

Rosty marched to the lectern and roared at the gathering, insisting on his worth, insisting that he would defend his salary back in Chicago.

Watching from behind him in the press gallery, I saw the beaming faces of his peers – Republicans and Democrats – basking in the moment. Here was a man living their dream – unapologetic and proud of his work.

Even his legislative failures were compelling. In 1989 a crowd of irate seniors famously chased him through the streets of his district over a health-care measure known as “catastrophic care.”

I wrote a Sunday column suggesting that if the voters of his district wanted face time with the Chairman on the matter they should pony up a $2000 honorarium and get him to give a speech.

The next week, the phone rang and an aide asked me to hold for the Chairman.

Rostenkowski had seen the column and, as his voice rose, said that I needed to know – not that he cared - that he didn’t give speeches for a mere $2000.

Another morning in the House I watched an esteemed reporter for the New York Times follow Rosty toward a door to one of the many meeting rooms he commanded.

The Timesman had more questions. Rosty had no more answers. He opened the door, stepped inside and shut the door in the reporter’s face.

Another Times reporter, the late Robin Toner, turned to me with a smile on her face. “Well,” she said, “you don’t see that happen to my paper very often.”

Finally, there is the art of the performance. Understanding this concept is not possible if you possess a reflexive distaste for politicians. But there it is.

There is pleasure to be drawn and something to be learned from watching someone do their job with surpassing skill, and a little style. Think Michael Jordan going to the hoop, Meryl Streep at the movies, Derek Jeter playing baseball, Mike Royko at the height of his column writing powers, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan working a crowd.

For all his imperfections, which will be well chronicled this week and next, Rostenkowski was exceedingly good at being Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. There are worse legacies.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mornings at Tammany Hall

The art teacher generally turned up at Tammany Hall around 9 in the morning. The saloon was closed, but someone would let Cliff through the double doors of the converted Washington townhouse near 21st St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. He would amble to the far end of the bar, away from the doors and the windows and place his briefcase on the barstool next to him.

He was an art professor, actually, at George Washington University, just a block down the street, and a watercolorist of some renown. “Gin,” he would offer, though anyone behind the battered counter would already be reaching for the Beefeater bottle.

Some men who drink at 9 in the morning need a newspaper or a crossword puzzle or a detective novel as a prop. And of course, in the era of Dick Nixon, the cell phone had not yet become an all-purpose appendage and refuge.

Cliff needed nothing but the gin. He was meticulous, quiet and polite, making church steeples with his fingers and pushing back his lank brown hair. He did not require gossip or bartender bonhomie or witless chat about the weekly fate of the Washington Redskins. He needed gin.

Around 10, Mr. Sims, a native Washingtonian of indeterminate age, would make his way from the downstairs kitchen to Cliff’s end of the bar. He would fire up a Kool, nod at Cliff and shoot a look at the bartender.

Charles Sims was famously uninterested in the names of the customers or of his white-boy colleagues who tended bar or waited tables. Someone would place three fingers of room-temperature gin in front of him and he would knock it back, always offering the same assessment.

“Make you sick or make you well,” he’d gasp.

From time to time, as a kind of peace offering, Charles would emerge from the kitchen with bowls of what he called “Turkey Butt stew.” The translation was literal – Charles wasted nothing in the Tammany Hall kitchen. But as appalling as it was in concept, we came to believe the stew (it was soup, actually) possessed miraculous, recuperative powers over the hangover. To that end we consumed it with vigor, and we didn’t ask too many questions.

For his part, Cliff, the art professor, would ignore the stew and generally have a pair of large gins, maybe three on a morning when the prospect of facing his students and his peers got the better of him.

Their behavior was in no way viewed as unusual or problematic, and the gin in the bottle was almost never Beefeater.

Resplendent in a turtleneck and Frye boots, I was the guy behind the counter cutting the fruit. Being hired as a waiter at Tammany had saved me from a life of graduate school and working as a loan officer wannabe in a bank on 14th St. I had ascended to day bartender when a colleague had, in a festive manner, fallen down about a hundred rows of seats at RFK Stadium.

“No hard feelings,” Leigh told me. “I ‘d rather wait tables. You actually like talking to these people.” And I did.

I was a guy who had never had much fun, and was essentially unfamiliar with the concept. On my 25th birthday, my new friends Tom Costello and Chris Reidy appeared to tell me I would be working the bar that October night and they would be celebrating my birthday because, well, they felt I didn’t know how.

They were right. But I learned pretty fast. Unlike the bank or grad school, the bar was always open. Cash flowed into the tip jar. There were interesting women with drinks who stayed up late. At night a gaggle of journalistic regulars appeared, men and women who looked like they were having a lot of fun on and off the job. There was live music a couple nights a week, notably Emmylou Harris and Asleep at the Wheel.

My career path was just about where I wanted it to be.

On some mornings we would earn an early visit from Father Tim, a crowd favorite in local saloon circles. He was a defrocked priest and a kind of hero by our raffish standards, having been bounced from the clergy by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington for “disseminating” birth control information to poor women.

Not abortion counseling. Father Tim lost his stripes for suggesting to poor women that they needn’t get pregnant. A firing offense in those days.

So we liked Father Tim. But he was not without his odd habits and tendencies. He kept a number of checkbooks, including one that identified him – ex post facto – as a priest. Bars honored personal checks in those days and it was remarkable how often Father Tim would flash the priestly checkbook in Georgetown or on Capitol Hill and be told it was all on the house. And thanks for coming in, Father.

At Tammany Hall we were in on the game, of course, but the padre never got whacked for more than every other drink. This was despite the fact that Father Tim routinely indulged in a personal saloon ritual that can only be described as disturbing.

Customers who order the same drink the same way every time are generally held in high regard by bartenders. And Father Tim pushed the limits, as unpredictable as the College of Cardinals. Perhaps it was some relic of his boyhood days in the seminary but the good father insisted on many variations of beverage, all in the same vessel. He might start with a soda, then transfer his affections to a Bloody Mary, then perhaps move on to a cold draft beer. Same glass.

We viewed this conduct as closer to a mortal sin than a venial one, but he was our mascot priest. He was often in the company of Maryland real estate moguls who were masquerading as doctors, looking for some public entity to build them a hospital, the better to fleece the government and the needy.

Father Tim forgave them their sins, apparently, but we pounded their bar checks, making them pay for everything, and then some. It was a simple rule of thumb: if someone we liked was going to pay a little less, then someone else was going to have to pay a little more.

At about 11:30, the place was as ready as it was ever going to be for business. On an average morning I’d brew another pot of coffee, discreetly pour the better part of a quart of King George IV scotch into a Dewar’s bottle and tighten the apron.

Normal people – strays – would be coming for hamburgers and chef salads and fish & chips, with iced tea, and we would have to serve them. “The job must be done,” Tom Costello would say. In five or six hours we could start the party again.

Cliff, Mr. Sims and Father Tim are real people; they are not real names.