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.