When Charles Rangel wrote his memoir a few years ago, the title was: “And I’ve Never Had a Bad Day Since.”
The title referred to the moment when, during the Korean War, Rangel was wounded by shrapnel as he led fellow soldiers to safety in sub-freezing weather during a clash with Chinese troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
The book title is not valid any more. Charles Rangel had a bad day Thursday. He was found guilty by his peers in the House of Representatives of 11 ethics violations -- and censured. For Rangel, hearing the charges read by the Speaker, it must have seemed as deadly as facing Chinese machine gun bullets.
Rangel had tried desperately to stave off the humiliation of censure. This is a man who has taken great pride in his career. He was the product of a tumultuous family life. One of his earliest memories was of his father beating up his mother -- his father left the family and, ultimately, Rangel joined the army to fight in Korea. He came back a hero and managed to resume his education, get a degree and go to law school. He upset the reigning Harlem congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, in 1970, rising over the years to a top leadership position in the House.
Then, when the House ethics committee found him guilty of unethical behavior, he apologized “for the embarrassment I have brought upon this body that I love dearly,” and affirmed that he never intended to violate House rules.
“I hope,” he said, “that you would judge me on my entire record as a soldier and a dedicated public servant---not by my mistakes. To my beloved colleagues, my constituents and the American people, I am sorry.”
I remember how proud Rangel was when he conceived the idea of a school for public service at City College, which would be named after him. He used a Congressional letterhead to solicit donations to this project.
The congressman has a big ego. And, who among the other 434 members of Congress, does not? It goes with the job. Governors and mayors -- and even some reporters and TV anchors! -- have big egos. Modesty is not a virtue that people in public life possess in great amounts.
Rangel made a last ditch effort to get his colleagues in the full House to vote him guilty of a lesser charge than censure -- a reprimand.
Speaking with deep sorrow written in his face, Rangel declared: “I brought it on myself. I still believe this body should be guided by fairness.”
He seemed touched when his Republican colleague and long-time adversary on many issues pleaded for a lesser punishment then censure. Peter King of Long Island recited a short list of people who had been censured for criminal actions, pointing out that it was highly unusual for Rangel’s offenses to be punished as severely. He described Rangel as “a kid from the Inner City who left his blood in Korea.”
The chief counsel to the ethics committee said there was no evidence of corruption or personal gain in what Rangel did. Essentially, the committee concluded that his main vice was “sloppy bookkeeping.” For that, the Harlem congressman has paid dearly.
At the end of Thursday’s emotional proceedings, the House voted 333-79 for censure. Rangel rose to say sorrowfully: “I know in my heart I am not going to be judged by this Congress. I’ll be judged by my life in its entirety.”
In his career as a politician, Rangel seemed arrogant at times. But always playful. Always deeply sympathetic to the poorest and most underprivileged of his constituents.
I saw him take time-out from a busy schedule to visit a dying woman in Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She was an immigrant from the Philippines and wanted desperately to be a citizen. Rangel had a certificate made [quite unofficial] and it proclaimed that she was an “honorary citizen.” She died happy.
As he faced his colleagues, I couldn’t help feeling compassion for Charlie Rangel. He did not become rich from his indiscretions. Despite what some pundicts and editorial writers have concluded, he is not a rascal or a scoundrel.
He’s a pretty good guy whose non-criminal faults did him in. He can still be proud of his service to New York.