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John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the November 17, 2010 Providence Journal.
I didn’t feel like watching the election-night TV news at home — it was too depressing to hear the shrieks on Fox or the bromides on CNN — so instead I went up to cover Congressman Charles Rangel’s “victory party” in Harlem.
Despite facing trial before the House Ethics Committee, Rangel’s re-election was guaranteed in the overwhelmingly Democratic 15th District. But with the Republican takeover of the House assured, I wondered what the 40-year congressional veteran would say about his party’s defeat, or about the eerie silence throughout the campaign about the war in Afghanistan.
For all his apparent lack of integrity in personal matters, Rangel has distinguished himself by his principled opposition to the waste of lives and money in Iraq and Afghanistan (his proposed bill to restore the draft is an attempt actually to end the wars); I hoped that now he might finally say something bluntly critical about Barack Obama’s war policy, or the president’s too-timid “reforms” of Wall Street and the health-insurance racket.
Charged with 13 counts of ethics violations, including failure to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets, Rangel clearly wanted to keep a low-cost profile — no ballrooms, no balloons, no music. In any event, the House Ethics Committee on Tuesday quickly found him guilty of 11 of those alleged violations. Announcement of his punishment is pending.
When I arrived at his headquarters election night, the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club on 7th Avenue at 128th Street, I found only a few dozen supporters crowded inside the modest storefront space, some of them seated on metal folding chairs while they watched election returns on a wall-mounted TV, eating chicken, rice and beans, macaroni and cheese and collard greens from aluminum containers.
Just before 10 p.m., a chant went up: “Fired up — ready to win!” and Rangel came in off the street, resplendent in a natty charcoal suit, white shirt, red tie and elaborate red breast-pocket handkerchief. Until the ascension of Obama to the White House, the Harlem native was America’s most powerful black politician — as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee starting in 2007. Now, having been obliged to step down as chairman, Rangel might have seemed, like his party, reduced. But Rangel at 80 is still one of those politicians who fill a room with his self-confidence.
Rhetorically, Rangel isn’t as deft as his long-ago predecessor in the Harlem seat, the eccentrically charismatic and overtly corrupt Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Seventh Avenue above 110th Street is officially called Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, and the late congressman’s shadow follows Rangel everywhere, most recently in the person of his son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, who in September waged the most serious primary challenge yet against the incumbent. This was seen in part as family revenge, since Rangel unseated a corruption-weakened Powell in a primary fight in 1970. Powell Jr. was punished by his fellow House Democrats for, among other things, using public money for private trips, and nobody needed to remind Rangel of the historical echo.
But while Powell, the Baptist preacher backed into a corner, used to whip up his supporters with radical, biblical incantations of social injustice and class struggle, Rangel strove to keep things cool. Capable of talking as sharply as he dresses, these days he can’t afford to antagonize his Democratic congressional colleagues or Obama. Cheers erupted when Rangel’s 91 percent majority was posted on TV, but then the winner played it real quiet.
“I don’t know who said it, but there’s no place like home,” said the congressman in his gravelly New York voice. He cited his “horrendous experience” on the way to winning but then quickly reverted to understatement: The election just completed “has not been one of the best days for our Congress or our country.” With a nod to “bringing our military back home, holding on to health care, and continuing to invest in education and trade,” he seemed determined to say, well . . . nothing. When I asked why the Democrats lost the House, the wise guy in Rangel replied, to widespread laughter, “Because we didn’t have enough votes.” When I kept pressing the question, Rangel wouldn’t budge. “Clearly,” he blandly continued, “we have gone through a very, very difficult financial period, historically, in this country.” Yes, he said, “people are pretty damned angry” because of all the money and jobs lost, “because of greed and the system being out of control,” but they were mad, “not at Republicans and Democrats alone but the whole system.”
When I asked whether the Democratic Party itself, or Obama’s policies, were to blame, I began to feel as if I had overstayed my welcome. Charlie, the old pro, the purest party stalwart, would not be baited: “I don’t want to give you Civics 1 — there are 435 of us,” each with a responsibility to convince their constituents (660,000, said Rangel) of their suitability to hold office. “The president’s name was not on the ballot.”
After Jackie Rowe-Adams belted out “God Bless America,” I buttonholed Rangel, the decorated Korean War veteran who sometimes speaks for the hapless grunts in the American military. Why wasn’t the war an issue in the campaign? Rangel looked at me straight on: “You don’t want to spoil my evening?”
I hung around long enough to see a few notable well wishers, such as former Mayor David Dinkins, in double-breasted elegance, and New York Democratic County leader Keith Wright, who also avoided blaming the party or Obama. I asked myself: What do the Democrats think they’re doing? Eccentric though he was, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. often spoke candidly, most famously in his “Message to the World” LP, in 1967, another time when honesty was in desperately short supply. About the “downtrodden” whose lives seemed hopeless, he sermonized: “Too long have they waited in vain, black and white, poor and illiterate, for the better jobs, better housing, better education, better hospitals, but the conditions have not changed except for those who have always lived in the penthouses.” To the “people who live in the basements, the cellar,” his advice to “Keep the faith, baby,” and to not wait to be saved by “the great white fathers,” may today seem quaint, even somewhat absurd. But compared with the modern Democrats who kowtow to Wall Street, the insurance companies and the war lobby — who broke faith with people and lost their popular majority — it’s a lot more inspiring.
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“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”