Charlie Rangel should have known better

For you kids, there used to be a frequently performed play called, “Where’s Charlie?” So where in the world is Charlie Rangel, or at the very least, where is Charlie’s head? Put a more contemporary way, where is his head at? At 80 years old, he was at the top of his game. As chairman of one of the two most powerful committees in the Congress, he was one of the most recognizable and some would say beloved public figures in America. He’s the man who beat the corrupt Adam Clayton Powell (not unlike “The Man who shot Liberty Valance.”)

Everyone loves Charlie. When I saw him at the Democratic Convention in Denver, he was truly a rock star, first class. When he walked down the halls, the seas parted as they did for Moses. People nudged each other, asked for autographs, pointed at him from across the room. You know what? That kind of thing can go to your head. It can make you think you are invulnerable. It should make you think, “Uh-oh, I’d better watch it. The more they know you, the more vulnerable you are.”

But no, the man who helped write the tax laws broke the tax laws. The man who helped finance public housing abused the public housing laws and got himself several apartments that should have been reserved for people who really needed them.

You hear stories about the most famous figures in history, like Joe Stalin, violating the laws and testing the fates. Some actually got away with it. There’s a story that as Stalin lay dying, he was surrounded by his fearful retinue. They were all scared to death. They heard that yet another great purge like the one that had already killed so many millions was on the way. Though he was comatose, at the last minute his foot involuntarily twitched and every heart in the room nearly stopped. Could it be a trick? Would he recover? Would they all lose everything? Then he died.

Charlie is certainly not Joe Stalin. His reported law-breaking is just enough to get him into hot water. It’s incredibly frustrating, because we all know that if any other American got busted for not paying a million dollars in taxes (including taxes due to the government for income raised on the rental of a Dominican home), we would be in jail. The idea that the man who wrote the tax laws broke the tax laws can’t be easily excused. We know full well that the IRS and the federal government have made examples of people for far lesser infractions. Letting Charlie go makes a mockery of the system.

Yet the men and women who are supposed to be the ethical enforcers in the House of Representatives gave him a light smack on the hand. It makes no sense. The Democrats certainly know that everyone is watching. They know that we all think the Congress treats itself differently than the people they claim to represent. The Democrats are widely thought to be facing real trouble in the coming Congressional elections. Some of them are screwing up their courage and calling for Rangel’s ouster. Those who will need votes to replace him in his powerful position are being appropriately cautious about alienating Rangel or his supporters. Meanwhile, in one of the great moments of supreme irony, one of Rangel’s primary opponents is the son of the corrupt guy that Rangel beat, another Adam Clayton Powell. Life certainly does have away of spitting in the face of former heroes.

Even the president of the United States, knowing that this is a ticking bomb, has let it be known through his own voice and that of surrogates, that it is time for Rangel to voluntarily step aside and leave with dignity. This president certainly is aware that the Republicans will use the Rangel situation to try to demonstrate just how corrupt the Democrats are. This personal and professional tragedy is as old as the hills. As the old venereal disease army training films once warned, “Charlie should have known better.”

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 8/3/10

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