The Rules Kept Changing; Dan Rostenkowski Didn't

HER name was Mary, and she was middle-aged, worked as a domestic, had little money and no medical plan, and was in need of some serious and expensive life-saving surgery.

But she had lived in her Northwest Side Chicago neighborhood for most of her life. And she knew somebody who knew somebody who knew a politician of considerable importance.

Some calls were made, the most important coming from the office of the politician.

The result was that Mary went to a good hospital, was treated by skilled physicians, was cured and went home with a bill of $0.00.

How the politician arranged this, I don't know. I assume that the hospital and the doctors owed him favors. That's the way things have always worked in Chicago, which can be good or bad. In this case, it was good.

And it wasn't the only time the politician did something like that. Using his political muscle to help people out was part of his trade. That's the good side of what used to be called machine politics.

I like to think of the late alderman Vito Marzullo, who usually placed one or two young lawyers in city or county patronage jobs. And one night every week, the lawyers came to Vito's ward office and handled legal chores for low-income people from the neighborhood. Free, of course.

In Mary's case, the politician who took care of her medical needs was Dan Rostenkowski, whose career in public service has just ended in a most tragic way.

Before anyone leaps for the phone, stationery or e-mail device, let me say that Rostenkowski and I are not pals. Far from it. We've never particularly liked each other, and our longest conversation has been about two minutes.

Many years ago, we sat together at a banquet honoring up-and-coming young Chicagoans in various fields. He was the young politician with a future, and I was the young columnist.

He was aloof and wary of talking to someone who just might stick it to him down the line. Which shows he was smart, because I later did exactly that.

That was a pity, really, because we had a lot in common besides our ethnicity. We came from the same neighborhood. My family once owned a tavern within a short walk of Rostenkowski's house. And his precinct captain never once hustled us for a fast buck.

We have mutual friends and share some of the same bad habits. But when he was grabbed for a DUI in Wisconsin some years ago, he had the good sense to be polite to the cops.

We share having had kid problems, which can be agonizing for any parent. And if you are in public life, the minor foibles of your kids wind up in the newspapers while the neighbors of Joe the Bricklayer don't even know his kid was mugging old ladies.

Being a public figure, he is held to a higher standard. And sometimes, it isn't exactly fair.

What I'm stumbling into saying is that nobody should be taking pleasure from Rostenkowski's misfortune. Not unless you have never, ever, broken even a minor law and gotten away with it, fudged a bit on your taxes or violated any of the Ten Commandments.

Only a few decades ago, none of this would have been happening. That's because the rules changed. Most of the things he was nailed for would have been legal and common or, at worst, nickel-dime offenses when he began his career in Congress.

That's the way it is in our society. The rules keep changing. Things we could once say or think are now taboo. And acts that were once considered gosh-awful are now embraced.

Rostenkowski's mistake was not changing. Maybe he didn't notice. Or maybe he didn't see the danger.

The danger was that he was a big political fish - the kind of trophy that an ambitious federal prosecutor loves to stuff and hang on his wall.

There is no one in our society more powerful - judge, governor, mayor, legislator or even president - than a prosecutor. Local or federal.

At the federal level, they have a compliant grand jury and all the investigative tools they need: the agents of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and every other federal agency. Plus eager assistants who will send their own grannies up the river to enhance their careers.

And the most dangerous and ruthless are those prosecutors who have political ambitions that are most easily fulfilled by hanging a well-known public figure.

That's what did Rostenkowski in - a federal prosecutor's personal ambitions. If I could put those federal headhunters on a lie box and ask: "Do you really believe that what he did was a terrible crime?" and they said "Yes," the needle would clang when it went past the marking for "liar, liar, pants on fire."

So now Rostenkowski goes to prison for a year or so. And the TV cameras go on the Chicago streets and ask people what they think.

And without having read one word of evidence, some glassy-eyed mope says, "Well, he did wrong and he gotta pay for it, right?"

Lord, please let a hard-nosed cop grab that mope the next time he runs a red.

(Copyright, 1996, by The Chicago Tribune)

Mike Royko's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times.