Congressman Charles Rangel celebrates his 80th birthday with a big bash at the Plaza on Wednesday night. He was actually born on June 11, but we were already aware that he's a little vague on numbers.
That's certainly Rangel's position. The Lion of Lenox Avenue gave a dramatic, although somewhat delusional, speech on the floor of the House on Tuesday, demanding his day in court, taking responsibility for using the wrong stationery, or failure to "buy stamps," and vowing never, ever to make life easier for his fellow Democrats by resigning.
The world will be watching to see who actually shows up at Charlie's party. So far, the number of important invitees who have declared that they're going to be out of town is alarming. Sure it's August, but it's an election year. If so many Democrats are fleeing the scene, perhaps there's a pending attack we don't know about. Terrorist chatter? Monster anteaters escaped from a mad scientist's lab?
Under normal circumstances, it would take at least the monster anteater to keep this many local politicians away from a celebration honoring the man who rose to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
But that was before. To say Rangel is currently under a cloud is an enormous understatement, unless the cloud in question is mushroom-shaped. He's had to step down from his chairmanship, is facing a trial before the House ethics committee. His strongest defenders have sunk to arguing that the guy who set federal tax policy was just extremely sloppy about numbers.
Many of Rangel's troubles center around his attempts to raise money to create a Rangel Center at City College, to study public service issues and house the Congressman's papers. A great many groups lobbying the Ways and Means Committee for favorable tax treatment gave money to the center. The intersection of the donations, the tax breaks, and other earmarks stuck into the federal budget by Rangel is one of the major issues being considered by the House ethics committee.
And it's a great warning sign to the rest of our political class. STOP CREATING MONUMENTS FOR YOURSELF AT THE LOCAL COLLEGE. These days, every important politician thinks he deserves his own version of a presidential library. But even the presidents don't deserve presidential libraries. Most of them are enormous white elephants. Texas now has two Bush presidential libraries -- one for each George.
Rangel says his efforts to raise the money for the Center was a "constituent service." He represents Harlem. Adopt a public middle school, Congressman. Set up the Charles Rangel Shelter for Battered Women. The last thing your district needs is a place to study the Rangel papers.
The other charges against Rangel range from the outrageous to the unforgivable. Perhaps the House of Representatives doesn't care all that much about the fact that this guy was sitting on four -- four rent-controlled apartments, when many of his Harlem neighbors were desperate to find one. But we New Yorkers know exactly what it means, and we aren't going to forget.
Also, his financial disclosure forms were a mess and incomplete. He failed to report income or pay the proper taxes on his pay taxes on income from a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. (It was on this matter that Rangel floated the excuse that he couldn't figure out how much he owed because the resort's manager kept speaking in Spanish.)
Maybe figures aren't Rangel's thing. A bit unnerving in the chairman of the tax committee, but we might give him a break. But when you are a powerful Congressman you have people in your employ who are supposed to watch out for this sort of thing. The fact that no one flagged the problems for Rangel suggests that he either has terrible staff, or that he has staff that knows what their boss doesn't want to hear.
Rangel is, as we've said, 80. Different people age in different ways. Some are still going full guns well into their golden years and Rangel certainly looks chipper. But he also sounds mentally sloppy. The guy has been powerful for so long that he's used to watching the seas part as he approaches. And no matter what the committee rules, he won't be parting the waters any more.
He's done. No use to his district, no use to his city, a drag on his party and his president. The only great exit Charlie Rangel has left is to take the stage on his big party night, tell the guests he loves them, he's sorry, and he's leaving.