By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Once upon a time, before I began an interview with Rep. Charles Rangel, I was warned by an aide not to bring up the 1970 race in which the upstart Rangel defeated the virtually legendary Adam Clayton Powell to gain his House seat. In the intervening years, Powell had gone from has-been to icon, with both a state office building and a boulevard named for him in Harlem, and it did Rangel no good in his district to be remembered as the man who brought down Powell -- a little bit of history that desperately needed airbrushing. This, we are now learning, is Rangel's true vocation.
Rangel is now the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a man of immense importance in Washington. Nonetheless, he has been busy of late revising and amending the record, backing and filling, using buckets of Wite-Out as he discovers or remembers properties he has owned in New York, New Jersey, Florida, the Dominican Republic and God only knows where else -- and has forgotten or neglected to fully report on the required forms, not to mention the income from them. Oops!
Rangel recently even discovered bank accounts that no one in the world, apparently including him, knew he had. One was with the Congressional Federal Credit Union; another was with Merrill Lynch -- each valued between $250,000 and $500,000. He somehow neglected to mention these accounts on his congressional disclosure forms, which means, if you can believe it, that when he signed the forms, he did not notice that maybe $1 million was missing. Someone ought to check the lighting in his office.
The dim bulb could also have accounted for why Rangel did not notice that he was soliciting contributions for the curiously named Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service on the congressional letterhead of the very same Charles B. Rangel. It may also account for why he failed to report dividend income from various investments in addition to what he made by selling a townhouse in Harlem. The place went for $410,000 in 2004, and had been rented -- or not -- to various people, who paid rent or didn't -- since Rangel reported no income for years at a time. This is what he did, too, with the rent he earned on his Dominican Republic villa. Again, nada.
There is something wrong with Charlie Rangel. Either he did not notice that he was worth about twice as much as he said he was -- which is downright worrisome in a congressional leader -- or he thinks that he's above the law, which is downright worrisome in a congressional leader. I was with Rangel on election night last year and heard him speak eloquently about what it meant for a black person to become president of the United States -- my God, who would have thought this day would ever come? -- and he moved me to tears. So I don't think age has muddled his brain. He is sharper on a bad day than most people on a good one.
But he suffers from the degenerative disease called Congressional Sclerosis. Its symptom is the belief that the rules, especially the petty ones, no longer apply to you. This happens over time. It comes with seniority and a sense of victimization that combine to produce the onset of entitlement for goodies to which, in the course of things, you are not entitled. All this is abetted by the righteous belief that everyone else is making money and taking private planes and dipping their tootsies in the balmy Caribbean on a given February Friday -- and so why can't you? You have the power and the staff -- just look at all those people! -- and flunkies who will hold the elevator for you, pick you up at Reagan National Airport and on the other end at La Guardia -- and you ought to have some commensurate luxuries. This is only right.
This is the disease that ended Powell's career. He had good reason for his bitterness -- a black congressman whose staff couldn't even eat in the House cafeteria -- but he marshaled all the slights, all the insults, to excuse an abominable attendance record and contempt for the law. In the end, the very Harlem that today honors Powell turned against him and elected a Korean War vet named Charles Bernard Rangel. Now, all these years later, the omissions, deletions, amendments, corrections and curious accumulation of wealth make one revise the history that Rangel wants obliterated: He didn't beat Powell. He joined him.