Rostenkowski, Stevens Might Not Have Been Giants, But ...

Two major figures from recent congressional history died this week, a day apart, producing a rush of conflicting emotions.

Ted Stevens in 2008.

hide captionStevens in 2008.

Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

Ted Stevens died at 86 in a plane crash in Alaska, Dan Rostenkowksi at 82 at his summer home in Wisconsin after a long illness.

For those who had seen them in their heyday, the first reaction was probably nostalgia for another era. It's human to mark such events with a pang of fondness for the past and a wistful appreciation for its memorable characters. You didn't have to be an admirer of either man's politics, or either man, to be moved by their passing.

But there is a different kind of pang that goes with remembering the disgrace and defeat in which both left the Hill. And yet another when we consider how close this species of legislator has come to extinction.

Dan Rostenkowski in 2001 at a symposium in Orange, Calif.

hide captionRostenkowski, in 2001.

David McNew/Getty Images North America

Stevens was defeated for re-election in 2008 after being convicted by a federal jury on charges he accepted illegal gifts from a business associate and concealed them from the Senate. While on appeal, the charges were dismissed because prosecutors had withheld potentially helpful evidence from the defense. But the damage was done.

Rostenkowski's dethroning was every bit as bitter. First indicted in 1992, he lost his re-election in 1994 and eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud and converting official funds to his personal use. Although the amounts involved were not large, the plea sent him to a federal prison for 17 months. President Clinton granted him a full pardon in 2000.

Both former powerhouses continued to be familiar faces around Washington in recent times, visiting friends and associates who still called them "Mister Chairman." That is because in their not-too-distant day, these men mattered in a way that few who pass through the Capitol ever do.

Stevens served 40 years in the Senate, longer than any other Republican in history, capping decades of influence by chairing the Appropriations Committee. Rostenkowski's 36 years in the House included 13 as Democratic chairman of its pivotal Ways and Means Committee.

Both were creatures of the traditional Congress, firm in their own ideas but mindful of institutional responsibility. They fought over large issues and small but expected to strike a bargain before they went home. In their own time and in their own world view, Congress functioned and made sense, at least to people who were savvy about it. And Stevens and Rostenkowski were among the savviest.

Stevens was a poor kid from Indiana who went a long way thanks to World War II. He flew transports in China for the Army Air Corps, then went to UCLA and Harvard Law School on the GI Bill. Some of his best friends in the Senate were other World War II vets, like Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who lost an arm in that conflict, and Republican Bob Dole, who overcame grievous wounds as well.

For their generation, politics was a fight but not a war. They knew the difference.

Four years younger than Stevens, Rostenkowski was underage for World War II but served in Korea immediately thereafter. Then he went to Loyola University and had a brief career as a professional baseball player before following his father, a prominent Chicago alderman, into politics. He went to Washington in 1958 as a 30-year-old congressman and immediately set about climbing the ladder of committee power, seeing himself as a dealmaker more than a speechmaker.

Indeed, Rostenkowski was a critical to some of the biggest deals of his time. He worked with the White House of Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s on tax cuts, and again at mid-decade on an overhaul of the tax code. In between, he helped cobble together the compromise that saved Social Security for a generation.

Stevens too was known for working across the aisle, especially on appropriations and especially for defense (he chaired that subcommittee well before he got the big gavel). He forged relationships with legendary appropriators on the Democratic side, including Inouye and Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia (who died this summer) and Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania (who also died earlier this year).

Both Rostenkowski and Stevens were proud of their ability to bridge gaps and get things done.  They saw it as consensus building and quintessentially American.

In the current environment, of course, such cooperation is not in vogue.  Partisans and populists of the left and right see the agreements reached by the generation of Stevens and Rostenkowski as responsible for the massive federal debt and the pork-barreling culture and much besides. In fact, their notion of consensus-building has become the public-sector version of insider trading. Washington's brand of business as usual is seen by many as corruption.

Stevens and Rostenkowski always claimed they didn't understand how they could be prosecuted for what they considered petty infractions.  Imagine how much less they would understand how they are now vilified for what they considered their great virtues.

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