Rangel's weakness was pride, not greed
Among the mysteries of the Charlie Rangel affair is one that is sure to confound corrupt politicians everywhere: He took almost nothing for himself. His weakness, it turns out, was not greed, it was pride.
Mostly, this was little stuff. He used more than his proper allotment of rental apartments in Harlem. He lied on an application and said his son would be a tenant. But these were rentals, for crying out loud, not gifts of real property, and he paid rent, just not at the going rate. But still, he got the gift of a discount from a landlord, and landlords in New York can always use a political favor. Rangel knew that.
Rangel is accused of not paying taxes on rental property he owns in the Dominican Republic. This is not something to excuse, but his property was not a hotel or a yacht basin, but one of those time-sharey things you see in vacation commercials where all the food comes flambéed -- a misdemeanor, if that.
The more serious charge -- the most serious charge -- is that Rangel solicited funds from major corporations with business before Congress by using his congressional stationary. But the letters -- sent to Goldman Sachs, Verizon, AT&T, the Ford Foundation and others -- were efforts to fund the Charles B. Rangel Center For Public Service at City College, the storied municipal institution located in Rangel’s district and in the memoirs of an entire generation of New York intellectuals. Rangel would have been in good company.
One of those allegedly solicited was Eugene Isenberg, the chief executive of Nabors Industries, an oil firm seeking a tax break from Rangel’s Ways and Means Committee. Rangel had initially opposed the tax break, Eisenberg ponied up $100,000, and the committee, in its wisdom, gave him what he wanted. But Nabors’s check was made out to City College, and it was for the Rangel Center. Not a penny went into Rangel’s pocket.
To an extent, Rangel apparently suffered from a communicable disease you can get by serving in Congress -- entitlement creep. This happens when the words “why not me?” keep popping into your head. If your average CEO can use his staff to buy flowers for his wife and a more expensive arrangement for his mistress, then “why not me?” So Rangel had his congressional staff prepare the fundraising letters and mailed them on his congressional frank.
I do not make light of what Rangel did. Instead, if I may misuse the word, I make sad. Real crooks -- in or out of office -- would laugh at what brought him low. Where are the paper bags full of cash? Where are the numbered bank accounts in Swiss banks? Where are the fast boats, fast cars, fast girls? Nothing like that. His mistress is called Legacy. He wanted the Rangel Center. He wanted a brass nameplate and archives and a proper computer system for all his papers. He wanted respect. He actually deserved it.
I have always liked Charlie Rangel. He’s smart, and he’s funny, which is a zoning violation of sorts in Washington. He’s had an incomparable life and done some very good things, but he broke the rules and abused his office and let his pride get the better of him. Truth is, though, whatever he’s been accused of, he’s really guilty of one thing: vanity.
| July 30, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories: Cohen | Tags: Richard Cohen
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