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There are bound volumes of "Punch" on the shelves. A dusty copy of "Pilgrim's Progress." More than two dozen Trollope novels. But no matter how you try, you cannot wrestle your eyes away from the big picture on Bob Packwood's far wall: Standing in front of an American flag, with smiles as wide as the broad stripes, are Packwood and Dan Rostenkowski.

Packwood and Rosty. Rosty and Packwood. A decade ago they were triumphal figures, the two titans of tax overhaul. You couldn't understand Washington without understanding Packwood and Rosty.

In their salad days -- though, truth to tell, Rosty was less known for his salads than for the thick-cut steaks at Morton's -- they were known as Mr. Chairman. The word "powerful" was appended to their names and their titles, as in "the powerful Rostenkowski" or "the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee."

Now the word "disgraced" is there, as in "the disgraced former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee," or "the disgraced former senator from Oregon."

Today they are forgotten but not gone.

Now one of them, Packwood, sits in a purple turtleneck in a basement office in Georgetown, surrounded by old books and old prints. He's a lobbyist and consultant. The other one, Rostenkowski, is back home in Chicago's 32nd ward, just a log roll away from St. Stanislaus Kostka church. He's finally free from prison and halfway house and is contemplating a career in political consulting.

Their lives have changed, or so they say. Their livelihoods have not.

Packwood practiced a little law in his youth, Rostenkowski played a little minor-league baseball, but Packwood and Rostenkowski are pols through and through, even when they're through.

They're out of power now, but throughout their exile they have remembered the chief axiom of the capital: Knowledge is power. They know how Washington works; they know how voters respond. And they know there are people, and companies, and special interests, that want to pay for that knowledge, or at least to rent it for a while.

Rostenkowski hasn't been out of the Salvation Army Freedom Center, the last stop in 15 months of federal custody, long enough to have a list of clients. He will. Packwood has been out of the Senate since September 1995 and represents a lobby group trying to abolish the estate tax, Northwest Airlines in its trade fight with Japan, and Freightliner, the largest manufacturer of big American trucks.

Rostenkowski lost his chairmanship, the House seat he occupied for 18 terms and his place at the center of the House after a scandal that reeked of Chicago -- phantom employees, car payments, stamp vouchers from the post office -- but rocked Washington. Packwood lost his chairmanship, the Senate seat he occupied for 26 years and his place as the feminists' favorite Republican after being charged with a series of sexual improprieties.

Now Packwood plays bridge by the hour, lingers over the begonias and impatiens he plants in his window boxes, and tells a lot of old stories. Now Rostenkowski has lost 60 pounds and is better read, and probably better rested, than ever.

"I really don't care what he does," says Julie Williamson, a former Packwood staff member and one of his accusers. "He can have a life. We now have set a precedent: No matter how powerful you are, you can't abuse other people."

Two former chairmen, they were revered in their day, not for what was expected of them but for how they shattered the expectations.

Packwood championed women's rights and abortion rights in a party that suffered from a gender gap and ran quadrennial litmus tests on abortion.

Rostenkowski made his reputation by making deals, many of which inevitably and accurately were described as sweetheart deals, and then, in the 1986 tax overhaul, he became a reformer and stripped many of those deals from the tax code.

Now the two are tragic figures precisely because they're not shattering expectations. They've become consultants.

Packwood and Rosty. Rosty and Packwood. They're back. But not really.

Universal Press Syndicate

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