New York Democrat Charlie Rangel was found guilty on 11 counts of ethics violations today. Peter Beinart says the House will be a duller, meaner place when he leaves.
I’m sure Charlie Rangel did whatever the House ethics committee says he did. I’m sure it’s in the Democratic Party’s interest for him to resign, fast. And I’m sure Washington will be a duller and meaner place once he leaves.
In a city in which even Democrats long ago stopped talking about the poor, Rangel—a maid’s son who began working when he was eight—never did. He screamed about the injustice of Reaganism and screamed about the injustice of Gingrichism and had the temerity to suggest that being a Christian should have something to do with aiding the poor. In the 1990s, when the Catholic hierarchy didn’t aggressively fight the cuts in social spending pushed by the Republican Congress, Rangel—a Catholic—told New York’s Cardinal O’Connor to “put his vestments on and get on the Capitol steps and read Matthew,” the gospel where Jesus says that those who feel the hungry will enter heaven.
In an age of identity politics, Rangel had little time for cheap displays of racial solidarity. He endorsed Walter Mondale over Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and while he got arrested protesting apartheid South Africa, he met the same fate protesting Islamist Sudan. Many of his closest friends in the House were blue-collar white members who, in the words of Chris Matthews, then an aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill, were “tied emotionally and culturally to the people they represent,” like Rangel himself.
In an age of bullshit pieties, Rangel said what he actually believed. “Who the hell wants to live in Mississippi,” he asked in 2006, which was pretty understandable for a black man who came of age in segregated America. “If a young fellow has an option of having a decent career or joining the Army to fight in Iraq, you can bet your life that he would not be in Iraq,” he declared the same year. Most Democrats in Congress would never have said such a thing for fear of being declared anti-military. But most Democrats in Congress had never served themselves, whereas Rangel had won a purple heart and bronze star in Korea for leading his troops from out behind Chinese lines in weather so cold that several of them froze to death. While other Democrats quibbled around the edges of the Iraq War, Rangel introduced legislation instituting the draft—thus instantly exposing the weakness of the pro-war case since everyone knew that few senators would risk their own sons to rid Saddam Hussein of chemical weapons.
Charlie Rangel is a holdover from the days when Democrats were more comfortable in pool halls than coffee houses, when the party had a deep, organic link to America’s working class. His relationship to the poor voters of his Harlem district is not one of compassion, but of solidarity, the solidarity of a man who might himself have ended up on the streets had not the G.I. bill given him an education.
The House of Representatives will soon be run by people who believe that America would an almost perfect society if only government got out of the way. Rangel knows that’s not true; less because he is enthralled to any counter-ideology than because he has seen it disproven in his own life. The Democratic Party of Charlie Rangel—and of Tip 0’Neill and Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther—is almost gone, replaced by a party with less of a gut-level attachment to those on society’s margins. It’s fitting that Rangel would be preparing to leave just as Barack Obama considers backing behind a plan to extend the Bush tax cuts even for millionaires. Given the way things in Congress are going, I can’t imagine why Rangel would want to stay.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins.
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