No tears for Charlie

Sam Smith

If the House tries to kick out Charlie Rangel, it will be the second time it has attempted this with a Harlem member of Congress. The last time, with Adam Clayton Powell, it didn’t work. The Supreme Court said no.

But, at the same time, Rangel is no Adam Clayton Powell. In fact, he is the anthesis of the man who, with Lyndon Johnson, got more good legislation passed through Congress in less time than any two scoundrels (or honest politicians) in history.

In 1967, I wrote in Powell’s defense a piece called “Keep the Seat, Baby” in which I argued

|||| [Powell] is one of the last of the political swashbucklers in an era when the average public man is a bland, carefully pumiced sort of fellow whose virtues are minimal and whose sins are kept carefully unobtrusive. Mr Powell belongs an almost extinct breed of politician whose lives contain complex and contradicting forces of strength, in whom good and bad struggle rather than compromise, in whom there is humor, pathos, arrogance, and hurt, in whose veins blood rumbles like a freight train rather than lying in stagnant, semi-congealed pools.

They are men who inspire other men to write novels. Men who distill both the good and the bad of what it means to be human. 

We do not understand Adam Clayton Powell because most of our politicians are sent down to us from councils above, carefully prepared so as not to offend and so that they stay soft and color-fast in even the harshest of water. But men like Powell explode up out of the mass. They are not prefabricated; they simply can’t be prevented. Their constituency is despair and misery and their own character a confused sea of conflicting values and goals, desires and fears.|||

Powell liked the piece and invited me over to his Capitol Hill office, where he opened the largest personal bar I had ever seen. “This, Sam,” he said, “is what comes from serving the Lord.”

There would never be another Adam Clayton Powell in Congress. He would be replaced by Charlie Rangel, a role model for future years of compliant, non-confrontational black members of the House.

But Rangel went even further. As Lyn Norment wrote in a 1989 Ebony article, he became “a front-line general in the war against drugs.”

Of all the stupid wars America has fought in recent decades none has harmed blacks more than the one against drugs. It helped to create an underground equal in economic size to the legal drug industry, caused tens of thousands of young blacks to be needlessly imprisoned and created more fatalities among them than Vietnam had with their fathers and uncles.

About the time of that Ebony article, I was involved in a futile effort to revive the old liberal organization, Americans for Democratic Action. Among the achievements of our small cabal were two successful ADA convention resolutions challenging the basic principles of the drug war. As chair of the DC chapter of ADA, I also organized a news conference on Capitol Hill to push our positions.

The ADA leadership was furious and eventually purged us. Among that leadership: ADA president Charles Rangel.

But before it happened we had one of the sweetest moments in politics I have ever seen. A debate on the drug issue had been scheduled and the two sides were represented by Charlie Rangel and Eric Sterling, the latter a long time major voice for drug sanity in this country.

Sterling had once worked on the Hill and when it came his time to speak, he began by saying how nice it was to see Congressman Rangel again. He remembered well when both had been in Latin America checking out the drug problem, including that day landing in Bogata and sharing with officials some coca tea. Rangel suffered an instant melanin deficiency.

But in the end, it was the Rangels who won and the country was permanently and deeply damaged as a result.

So no one needs to shed any tears for Rangel. His predecessor, Adam Clayton Powell, more than compensated for his weaknesses by his virtues, but Charlie Rangel never even came close.

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