OFF THE GRID

Charlie Rangel Never Had a Chance

Jul 30, 10 | 7:41 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Politics is as much about ignominy as about winning. Many careers have both experiences. Charlie Rangel, one of the most successful political figures of his generation in New York, is now, in the Washington Post’s estimation, a “pariah.”

He’s a pariah partly because—quite unable to believe he is no longer a man of far-reaching influence, a fixer of legendary power—he has down to the wire refused to get out of the way of Democratic efforts to get him out of the way.

In the end, his minor entitlements (a collection of rent-controlled apartments), his small-time tax avoidance schemes (on a house in the Dominican Republic), and a two-bit vanity project (exchanging favors in order to get a college building named after him), won’t be held against him as much as his refusal to go quietly.

To me, the most interesting question may not be how he got into this fix, but at what point almost all politicians get there. Rangel, who unseated the legendary Adam Clayton Powell who was censured for reasons similar to the problems Rangel faces now, has been in Congress for 40 years. This is nearly as long as anyone has been there with effects that are not at all salutary. Could it be that any politician of unreasonable tenure falls into habits of political slough and grossness if not outright corruption?

One issue for the electorate is the value of a politician who can do his job as well as it can be done, and yet, precisely because he can do it in his sleep, is as bored with it as it is possible to be. Rangel has suffered the fate of so many ward politicians: absolute power and nowhere to go with it. Rangel is a captive New York pol—as much a caricature, and joke, as he is a success.

His nemesis, the New York Post, fastened on him precisely because he is a caricature. It’s a perfect Post moment: vivid and overweight personalities caught in recline. There’s almost no recovering from that photo: Rangel, age 80, letting it all hang out on a folding chaise at the tax-free Dominican Republic house.

I’ve often bumped into Rangel in the green rooms around New York—Rangel, with his entourage, waiting for air time. He is unfailingly charming—such an enveloping hand—and yet so obviously weary. It is not his weight that is most obvious and disconcerting, or the copious sweat he’s always wiping from his brow, but his eyes. You look directly into a watery pond of bone-tired, burned-out, done-in, out-of-gas, fed up and ready-to-drop, seen-it-all-before tedium.

Politics is an unkind profession. The longer you’re in it, the less kind it is. However much you’ve won, if you don’t walk away from it, you’ll be defeated.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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OFF THE GRID is about why the news is the news. Here are the real motivations of both media and newsmakers. Here's the backstory. This is a look at the inner workings of desperate media, the inner life of the publicity crazed, and the true meaning of the news of the day.

 

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