WASHINGTON -- Once again, as often happens in this town, conventional wisdom has taken a beating. When it comes to the long, painful saga of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the pundits and prognosticators seem to have been wrong at a number of critical junctures.

Here are a few of the whoppers that Capitol Hill insiders accepted as truth about the Illinois Democrat's plight:

Prediction #1: It's all a big mistake and it will be cleared up soon. This theory was popular back in 1992 when the House Post Office scandal first came to light. At the time, it was alleged that a number of current and former congressmen were in some way laundering campaign funds through massive and inexplicable purchases of stamps.

Rostenkowski's name was mentioned in conjunction with the scandal, but tax lobbyists and congressional aides who knew the burly, gruff House Ways and Means Committee chairman dismissed the talk as misguided. Just a big misunderstanding.

If Rostenkowski wanted money, they reasoned, he could have retired from the House in 1992 and taken with him a campaign war chest estimated to exceed $1 million. Under House rules, he forfeited that nest egg by running for another term that year and winning.

Rostenkowski steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. Capitol Hill watchers theorized that if illegal activities were going on between Rostenkowski's office and the House Post Office, they were being undertaken by staff members, and Rostenkowski had no knowledge of them. Besides, they said, it's just some stamps. It will blow over.

But it didn't blow over. In January, Chicago newspapers reported that U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens was widening his investigation beyond the Post Office scandal, looking into possibly improper office rental and car leasing arrangements undertaken by Rostenkowski.

After that, most of the talk around town of "a big misunderstanding" ceased.

Prediction #2:A U.S. Attorney serving under a Demcratic President isn't going to throw the book at Rostenkowski. The investigation of the House Post Office scandal actually began during the administration of a Republican, former President George Bush. Once President Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993, tongues began to wag in Washington that Rostenkowski was probably safe: Clinton would soon be replacing the Republican Stephens with an attorney who would presumably be loyal to the new President.

Yes, Clinton did replace Stephens. But his successor, Eric Holder, has been just as aggressive in pursuing Rostenkowski, if not more so. In October, major newspapers reported that Holder was taking the investigation a step farther, and looking into whether Rostenkowski carried "ghost" employees on his payroll, ghosts who received salaries but did no work.

Conventional wisdom transformed itself overnight: Holder now is being viewed as an independent crusader, bending over backwards not to look as if he trying to help a Democratic president by going easy on a top Democratic member of Congress.

Prediction #3: Rostenkowski isn't going to get indicted in the middle of drafting a health care reform bill. As the Holder investigation dragged on into 1994, Capitol Hill watchers began to think that the drive to reform the nation's health care system might save the Ways and Means chairman.

Rostenkowski is widely believed to be essential to drafting a health care reform bill. His committee is central to the process, and there's no one like Rosty when it comes to twisting arms, cutting deals, and lining up votes.

Even Clinton made it clear that Rostenkowski was his man, by campaigning for the embattled congressman in March as he successfully fought off several primary challengers vying for his congressional seat.

So Capitol Hill watchers presumed Holder would dither, and avoid the disruption of the legislative process that might occur if Rostenkowski were indicted in the middle of the year while the committee was working. But Holder forged ahead, apparently unmindful of any political ramifications, and presented his charges just days before the panel was slated to begin drafting a bill.

Throughout the past two years, the prognosticator's predictions appear to have been colored by a feeling that nothing bad could really happen to Dan Rostenkowski. Now, with all the facts staring them in the face, they are beginning to accept the inevitable. But they still don't believe it.

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