07.23.10

Charlie Rangel Is Toast

He’s an embarrassment, and a hindrance to his party’s 2010 fortunes. Tunku Varadarajan on why Rangel must resign—and why racism is no longer a viable defense against challenges to his conduct.

Charlie Rangel, oleaginous octogenarian extraordinaire, put on a press conference at lunchtime on Friday that was such a master class in shifty-eyed flimflam that no one who watched it can have left its Harlem venue (or their TV screens) unconvinced that he is, by some great distance, the most knavish congressman in Washington.

There can be little doubt that Rangel—who has served a mind-boggling, and, for those concerned with standards of official conduct, depressing, 20 terms—is not going to be able to run for a 21st term. His career is now over. I predict that he will resign by, or on, Thursday of next week, the day on which the House Ethics Committee lays formal charges against him, charges which—if he contests them—will go to public trial. (The charges are, by now, so well known that they scarcely bear repeating: undeclared taxes on income from a beachfront villa in the Dominican Republic; the securing of four luxury apartments at a heftily subsidized rent; and the granting of lucrative favors to a donor. Read a detailed account here. (Rangel has, predictably enough, protested his innocence all along.)

Rangel will surely see that there’s no profit—which is the mot juste, I think—in wading into the sludge of a public ethics trial, not with that nice pinstripe suit on.

There can be no question that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, would dearly like the Democrats to fight November’s elections without Rangel flapping for air in the barrel full of fish into which Republicans are training their fire. After it was announced last Thursday that the Ethics Committee would proceed against Rangel, John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, took a swing at Pelosi: “Today’s announcement is a sad reminder of Speaker Pelosi’s most glaring broken promise: to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington.” You know you have problems when even a man of Boehner’s modest acumen starts to sound irrefutable.

There will be resistance to Rangel’s departure, primarily from members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for whom Rangel is, for all his flaws, a revered elder statesman. But Rangel is now indefensible, and not merely because Pelosi wants to show him the door: His is a style, a method, a politics from an age when it was simply not done to ask uncomfortable questions of a black politician, lest that politician (and his supporters) retort that the questioning was racist. That protective smokescreen of “racism” was good to men like Rangel, allowing them to go about their merry ways blithely, and untroubled. It is harder to strike pouting, Manichaean postures now, when a black man holds the highest office in the land. There can be no cheap and easy shaming of critics, no slick refuge in a narrative of racial oppression.

So Rangel, bereft of that narrative, chose instead to question the intelligence of a pesky, inquisitorial journalist. When buttonholed Thursday by young Luke Russert of MSNBC, who asked Rangel if he feared for his job in the House, he turned on the callow reporter like a singed cat: “Basically you know it’s a dumb question, and I’m not going to respond.” He chided the reporter, also, for a lack of “respect.” ( The clip of the exchange is worth watching.) This unedifying exchange went, as they say these days, viral; and Rangel found it necessary, as he revealed at Friday’s press conference, to apologize to Russert.

(And here I offer a short tangent: When the MSNBC anchor, Andrea Mitchell, asked Russert to elaborate on Rangel’s apology, the lad went all coy on us, saying, “I won’t get into specifics, because that was between he and I.” Now my biggest beef is not with Russert’s execrable grammar (although the son of the late, great Tim ought to know better, especially if he wants to succeed in the family business); it is with the dereliction of his journalistic duty, which was to tell us exactly what Rangel had said to him. Rangel’s original rant was on air, in response to Russert-as-reporter. There can be no professional scope, or excuse, for the non-disclosure by Russert of the details of the subsequent apology.)

Rangel has come to the end of his long and pot-holed political road. Being a terrifically vain man, with a notable sense of his own legacy, he will surely see that there’s no profit—which is the mot juste, I think—in wading into the sludge of a public ethics trial, not with that nice pinstripe suit on. And especially not when he must know—deep in his canny, but not unsentimental, heart—that President Obama, too, would be mighty relieved if he, Charles Bernard Rangel, were to cut his losses, cut the party’s losses, and call it a day.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)