Rangel's Fall From Grace

The ethics controversy surrounding Congressman Charles Rangel, until yesterday the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is yet another in a long line of incidents that prove what really needs no proving: Power corrupts. The cases are rooted in the psychology of power and they are immune to partisan considerations: Congressmen, and others in positions of authority from important bankers to other hierarchs, surround themselves with staff whose job it is to make the head honcho life smoother and easier. They run to get coffee. They do the driving. They do the research needed to discern what possible solutions exist for any given problem. They are sought after by schools and business groups to be speakers. Needing money to fund their campaigns, or their investment portfolios, or their dioceses, they rub elbows with the rich and famous. They come to recognize what is a simple truth: They are special. And, that is true. Nobody does my research or gets my coffee.

Over time, this kind of life breeds a sense of personal entitlement and the person at the center of all this attention says to him or herself: Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I have that perk? Why should the rule prohibiting the junket trips to the Caribbean apply to me? After all, think of all the good I have done for so many people over so many years. In the case of Charlie Rangel, he really has done a great deal of good for many people over many years. Which is why it is so easy to see how he fell into the ethical trap. Which is why it is so unforgivable that he let down all those people he had helped.


Ours is an unforgiving culture. Tiger Woods’ personal problems should have been his own business but our cultural prurience loves nothing better than to rip open the private lives of the famous when we are guaranteed to see unseemliness. In Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities," he writes of the Revolutionary mobs tearing people to shreds and we early twenty-first century moderns think how far we have come, but I would suggest that what Dickens catalogued is little different from what we saw happen to Mr. Woods.

Congressman Rangel, however, is not deserving of such privacy, though he is entitled to forgiveness. He was a public servant. His perks were a result of his public power. Indeed, any delight in seeing the politically mighty fall when they mess up is an entirely healthy democratic (small "d") instinct. The many people Rangel helped over the years had the right to expect him to keep his public actions blemish free. His own commitment to the idea that government can accomplish good in our society demanded that he not transgress the ethical rules adopted by the House, because his actions have added to the false perception that nothing good comes from Washington. He should feel ashamed and it was right to strip him of his powerful gavel.

That said, Rangel is being judged based on his worst moment, and that is a test few of us would pass. Sister Helen Prejean, made famous by the movie "Dead Man Walking" once told an interviewer that all the men on death row had been judged by their worst moment. In the life of the Church, we look at the career of someone like Cardinal Law who was always first to arrive with a planeload of supplies whenever natural disasters struck his beloved Latin America but whose handling of the sex abuse crisis required his resignation as archbishop. Publicly, we may be right to believe that holding people accountable for their misdeeds requires severe punishment, but we must never lose sight of the good that was done by these same people. That remembrance should temper our judgment, even while we consider the penalties fair. No one should be reduced to their worst moment or decision. Before such huge falls from grace we should all cultivate a bit more of the one virtue that might have prevented the falls in the first place: humility. Turns out Pride really is the deadliest of the seven deadly and it is at the root of all falls from public grace. Thank God - literally - that divine grace and mercy do not fail.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 10 months ago
But, Mr. Killoran, you fail to respond to the argument.  I think the "consensus" view (I'm relying here on the work of William Julius Wilson) is that the dysfunctionality of the black family is both a cause and an effect of intractable black poverty. And if "liberal policy" were so successful, then why in places like the city I live in, New Orleans, where liberal policy has been pursued to excess, have all the measures of poverty either remained stagnant or gotten worse.  For example, the city recently moved to tear down the dilapidated and drug-infested housing projects and to replace them with mixed-income housing developed in part with private money.  Now, the consensus view from Wilson & others is that ghettoizing poverty was a tremendous mistake of "liberal" policy in that they institutionalized alternative societies in essence. Yet when this decision in new Olreans was made, there was outrage and protests and lawsuits by the lefties (primarily whites) who thought that , while the projects have their problems, this moved amounted to putting poor people out on the streets.  This group included a prominent liberal "catholic social"ist lawyer who filed numerous suits to keep the projects open.  Nevermind that by and large the actual residents of the projects were in favor of the new development & those clients surveyed in new buildings love them.
the great thing about catholic social teaching is that it is flexible for the ages, and unlike you and Mr. Bindner, doesn't get stuck in the 1960s or 70s social policy.  Again I ask you, do you REALLY believe that, all things being equal, the plight of poor, inner city blacks would be siginficantly different today had the war on drugs not occurred & drugs were cheap and easily available?
James Lindsay
8 years 10 months ago
The policy that led to the rise in illegitimacy was the prohibition on intact families receiving assistance and misbegotten drug war, which targeted African American offenders much more heavily than Anglos. Neither of these things can be laid at Rangel's feet. Both policies came from more conservative elements.

On Rangel, his fall from grace is personal. What we are seeing is his violation of the 11th Commandment - if indeed he violated it rather than his staff (who may have let him down in this instance).
8 years 10 months ago
''His own commitment to the idea that government can accomplish good in our society''
Charlie Rangel came into Congress in 1970.  Black illegitimacy was 28% in 1968.  By 1990 it was 70% and the black community was a cultural and social disaster.  A small percentage did very well but the vast majority were sentenced to a dysfunctional life.  I suggest people look at inner city Detroit and many other inner cities to see what Rangel and the policies he is associated with have brought us.
8 years 10 months ago
''Both policies came from more conservative elements.''
I usually do not respond to other comments but this is beyond the pale. Nice try to re write history but I suggest you read Myron Magnet's ''The Dream and the Nightmare.''  I suggest every Jesuit also read the book and then you will know why so many Catholics reject liberal policies.  That way an intelligent conversation could take place here.
Charlie Rangel created a paradise on earth for himself while his people who he represents got a form of ''hell.''  To ignore that says more about Mr. Winters than anything.
Jim McCrea
8 years 10 months ago
I don't think he fell - he ran.
James Lindsay
8 years 10 months ago
Are you saying that Rangel voted for kicking fathers out of homes that get benefits and not southern Democrats? I don't think he was even in Congress then. I am quite sure he did not vote for the current drug laws, many of which predate Rangel as well. If he voted for the mandatory minimums put in by Jesse Helms (who, if he isn't a consevative, I don't know who is), I would be very surprised.

Until we give welfare to in tact families and repeal the drug laws, as well as reforming work requirements to mandate 10th grade literacy before they kick in and education until then, you can't blame a liberal paradigm for the problems of the poor.
Vince Killoran
8 years 10 months ago
There at (at least) two narratives about race and poverty in post-1965 America:one is told  about dysfunctional families and overeaching government policies; the other one about the devastation to our cities wrought by "white flight" and insufficiently funded anti-poverty government programs (and Michael Binder's point about the effects of the failed drug war). I happen to think that  the second narrative is much more compelling although there is some truth to the point that black communities have often failed themselves. Is there any way to fuse the perspective that serious progressive measures can be fused with the kind of message Bill Cosby delivers?
But why should we spend energy on worrying about Charlie Rangel's legacy or his redemption as a public figure? It's a uniquely American way of politics: we are fascinated by politicians and their stories.  Too many liberals spent far too much time in the 1990s defending Bill Clinton against the GOP attack machine while Clinton engaged in reckless neo-liberalism.
8 years 10 months ago
"one is told  about dysfunctional families and overeaching government policies; the other one about the devastation to our cities wrought by "white flight" and insufficiently funded anti-poverty government programs (and Michael Binder's point about the effects of the failed drug war)"
Actually neither of those "narratives" is very accurate, and you've set up a nice straw man. The most compelling narrative is the 1 told by my favorite liberal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, about the disintegration of the black family.  Unfortunately, his views were considered anathema by his fellow Democrats, who accused him of being a racist.  As I recall, the war on drugs is a liberal Nixon policy (who was VERY liberal on domestic policy) that conservatives like Bill Buckley objected to.  He, too, has been labelled a racist.  All things being equal, does anyone really believe that the plight of poor inner city minorities would be significantly better today if drugs were legal & openly available?  I doubt it, but then again, I may be labelled a racist.  See a pattern?
James Lindsay
8 years 10 months ago
Vince, you are so right. Indeed, many of Clinton's greatest failures were enacted when he was trying to make friends with the GOP after having been impeached, especially the tax bill which passed during reconciliation that cut taxes on the rich and led to the tech bubble and the resulting recession when it burst.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 10 months ago
Paul Krugman has an interesting column in this morning's (3/5/10) NY Times discussing how Republicans and Democrats live in different universes, both intellectually and morally.   Are conservative Catholics all Republicans, and liberal Catholics, Democrats?  I ask the question because oftentimes I feel that I am a more conservative (traditional) Catholic, yet I am a liberal Democrat, politically.  MSW strikes me as the same, and this could be why Republican Catholics find his writing so provocative.
That being said, I also travel in circles that includes a lot of conservative Republicans and am almost always suprised at what charming and genuinely generous and caring people that they are.  This requires me to adjust a more critical opinion that I hold of their political philosophy.
Vince Killoran
8 years 10 months ago
It's only a "straw man" if I then proceed to attack it! 
Of course there are other ways Americans have understood the history of contemporary America, but why is it inaccurate to state that, broadly speaking, a good number of politicians and a significant part of the American electorate are self-identified members of the New Right and understand black poverty as fundamentally a result of dysfunctional black families (and communities) and failed liberal policies? This seems so obvious that I'm a little embarrassed to have posted it. 
BTW, I'm not certain Nixon could be called a "ilberal" (he was all over the place politically) and historians aren't yet certain how to indentify  Moynihan  (a couple of recent monographs on neo-conservatism put him in that camp).
The "Drug Wars" have done enormous damage to minority communities starting with the incarceration rates of young males. Does this "fit" the tradition of Catholic social justice? Do our local parishes engage in discussions and activism on this?


The latest from america

Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019