Congressman Charles Rangel made it through a tough primary fight on his way to a 22nd term in the House. He overcame the keen opposition of a talented young challenger, of Barack Obama, the New York Times, op-ed writers, political pundits and the shifting demographics of his district. Rangel's success is bemoaned by all of the above for the electorate's failure to punish corruption and to perpetuate the career of a fossil. This is a distorted view of Rangel the man and his politics that does no justice to his remarkable accomplishments. It also smacks of more than a small dose of hypocrisy.
What were the crimes for which he was reprimanded? He contravened NYC housing laws by holding leases on two rent-controlled apartments in the same building with one used as an office. The other sin was not reporting earnings of roughly $100,000 or so that he used to buy a Caribbean condo. In the eyes of our righteous political class in Washington and New York, this is tantamount to high crimes and misdemeanors. So high is the ethical standard in the Congress that its members are deeply offended by this affront to their collective reputation as paragons of moral conduct. The White House too is offended.
True, the president's Secretary of the Treasury did not file a federal income tax return for two years. And after correcting the first error waited a year before forced by the IRS to correct the other. He excused himself on the grounds that he was distracted by the all-consuming task of running interference for the big banks in his capacity as head of the New York Federal Reserve. But Timothy Geithner is seen as indispensable by the Oval Office. After all, he was crucial to restoring the administration's credibility in the eyes of his Wall Street cronies. Geithner knows how the financial world works and how to work it. He sure does -- witness his personal finances.
Charlie Rangel, by contrast, is a retro figure. He doesn't get it. How can he properly represent his constituents, much less be a leader in Congress, when he is so out of it that he hasn't found a way to have friends and donors buy the entire Harlem building for him? When he is so out of touch that his ambition doesn't extend beyond a two bedroom condo in the sun? When he lacks the elementary skills for laundering a pittance of cash while getting a tax refund for his cleverness the way that GE and other corporations, as well as our respected financiers, do routinely. That is the portrait of a man who is not disconnected from today's America.
Rangel's constituents think otherwise. They reelected him by a comfortable margin. Still they are put down by the very serious commentators who judge them ignorant and lacking a sense of civic duty. Then again, those voters perhaps do have a grasp of who their Congressman is.
They know him as the Very Serious Commentators do not. Charlie Rangel does not want the cheers of the cognoscenti. He doesn't need their cheers. His public life has never been a melodrama; celebrity politics is not his game. His career and accomplishments are the only fitting accolades. Whatever columnists say about him, that can't be taken away. In the age where the superficial prevails and the genuine is routinely eclipsed by the confected, it is hard to come to grips with someone like Charlie Rangel. A big man with a healthy ego who never lost sight, though, of what mattered most -- the people whom he represented and the causes of social justice that served them. Sure he broke some rules, and he bent some others. But he never sold out; he kept his integrity. His convictions were integral to who he was and what he did.
Is Charlie Rangel an ethical public servant? By what performance standard? What have been the public ethics of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama? Have they had convictions about anything but their personal ambitions? Have they hesitated a moment before betraying the people they swore to help? Have they addressed the concerns of the common man who is praised to the skies in their rhetoric but not in their actions? Do these self-regarding narcissists even know who they are? Yet enlightened opinion remains respectful and deferential.
Charlie Rangel as chairman of the House Committee on Ways & Means produced a sound, progressive piece of health care legislation that then was tortured into the absurd act that we are left with. His counterpart, Barney Frank as chairman as the House Committee on Financial Services -- a long-time cheerleader for Fannie Mae -- proved far more responsive to the pressures from Wall Street. By the standards of public service, Charlie Rangel should be placed above them all. On the record of what really counts, he deserves better than to be dragged over the coals on the editorial pages of the New York Times.
I've never met Charlie Rangel. The only time I ever saw him was in the aisle of a shuttle from National to La Guardia. He was smiling apologetically for a delay of 2 or 3 minutes that was his fault. Not a cosmetic smile from a consultant's book of etiquette. It came from a man who as a Marine won the Bronze Star for heroism in Korea leading a beleaguered Marine company through the snows from the Chosen Reservoir, then studied mathematics before plunging into politics where he truly has served for 40 years. There is no reason for him to be apologetic before people in the House, or the White House, most of whom can't even imagine someone of his temper. So here's a well-earned toast to a decent albeit imperfect man who has done a heck of a lot.
Parts of this blog previously appeared in a 2010 post.