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Dan Rostenkowski: a Washington giant, a casualty of scandal

Dan Rostenkowski, once called one of the nation's most power politicians, died Wednesday. His lengthy political career in Washington began in 1958 and ended amid scandal in 1994.

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In this April 20, 2005 file photo, former Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (r.) and former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, speak at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File

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In his time, Dan Rostenkowski was a giant of Washington. The 18-term Democratic congressman from Chicago was a politician who combined the sharp political instincts of an alderman with a legislative ability reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson.

He went to federal prison on corruption charges. He knew that would be the first line about him in the history books. “It is something I have to live with,” he said in a 1998 broadcast interview.

But Mr. Rostenkowski, who died Wednesday, also knew that his impact on the nation’s policies was immense.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he brokered passage of some of the most important bills of the Ronald Reagan era.

In 1983, he managed a rescue effort for Social Security. In 1986, he pushed through a tax reform effort that flattened rates and simplified the system. He was an important force behind passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, defying protectionist sentiment within important elements of his own party.

In 1990, the Almanac of American Politics judged him “one of the nation’s most powerful and also one it’s most productive legislators."

Not many would have predicted that he would reach such heights when he started off, noted his entry in the Almanac. He was the son of a Chicago alderman, and not a lawyer, or inheritor of an intellectual political tradition.

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