This was a sad time for many of us watching Charlie Rangel receive the censure of his colleagues in the House of Representatives — not because of our disagreement with their judgment but simply because of who he is.
For 40 years or more, half his life, Rangel has been a force in the House by dint of an irrepressible personality that conveys a keen intelligence, street smarts and a wonderful self-mocking sense of humor. To see him brought low is nothing but painful.
This is the second time in my life as a reporter that a man we mock but simultaneously salute with the cliched description as “the powerful chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee” has tumbled to self-inflicted ruin. When it happened to Dan Rostenkowski, the Chicagoan who held the chairmanship back in the 1980s and the early 1990s, many of us in the press gallery felt the same sense of loss.
I think I can tell you why. The pursuit of power is what brings people into politics, and some of them pursue it with a grim determination never to be outmaneuvered. You can stand back and watch them work, but there seems to be no joy in them — or in the spectacle they provide. It’s a deadly serious business, this fundraising, vote counting, always manipulating treadmill, for the Tom DeLays and the Nancy Pelosis of this world.
When one of them slips off that treadmill, you look to see who may replace them but you shed no tears.
What was different about Rangel and Rostenkowski was the sheer joy with which they played the game and the way they would let you know that, whatever the policy stakes, a game is what it was to them.
How did they let you know? They would analyze their own motives with the same disarming candor they brought to their calculations of their colleagues’ maneuvers.
I can recall a conversation with Rosty when he was chairman of Ways and Means in which he answered my question about the traits he valued when he put his stamp of approval on one of the many aspirants for membership on that most desirable of all House committees.
“I want somebody who’s already pretty secure in his seat,” he said. “I don’t want them worrying all the time about pressures from outside (interest groups) or from home (districts). I’d rather they think about what we here in the House think of them.”
That was such a candid and unexpected answer that I can still easily recall it. But especially when we were meeting regularly during the fight over the unsuccessful Clinton health care bill, Rostenkowski was equally candid about his own motives.
And he always hugely enjoyed the game he was part of — never burdened by whether it was negotiating with the treasury secretary or regaling his pals late at night at his favorite steak and bourbon joint.
Rangel is the same way, with the added dimension of the Harlem hipster who reveled in his ability to play the street game as well as anybody of his own generation or the next one rising up to challenge.
I remember conversations with him when he was engaged in what may have been his greatest coup: helping free Hillary Clinton from the confines of the East Wing and converting her into a successful Senate candidate in New York.
The number of people who were determined to keep that from happening were legion, both in Washington and New York. But Rangel knew them all and he knew how to get around them — by co-optation or by mowing them down, whatever was required. And he loved every minute of this game — which he played for unselfish purposes, not to expand his own influence.
He and Rosty had the same view of the hometown patronage games that brought them down. They wanted the perks that went with their positions of power. But they used them more often to help others along than for themselves, and they weren’t greedy. Often, they were just sloppy about the demands of the new era of politics.
It makes you weep to see someone like this fall.
CORRECTION: In my column for Nov. 18, I wrote that Rep. Steny Hoyer had challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the top leadership post in the House of Representatives. In fact, the two once ran against each other for minority whip, the No. 2 post.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.