“In all fairness, I was not found guilty of corruption, I did not go to bed with kids, I did not hurt the House speaker, I did not start a revolution against the United States of America, I did not steal any money, I did not take any bribes, and that is abundantly clear.”
—-Rep. Charles Rangel, less than a week following his historic censure by the House of Representatives for repeated violations of House ethics rules
Thus did Charlie Rangel embrace the Clinton Standard after proven unethical conduct, which can be loosely translated as “it’s not what I did that matters, it’s what I didn’t do that should have counted.” In Clinton’s case, the defense was that his lies and obstruction of justice were in the context of what he and his defenders dubbed “personal” misconduct, not the official “high crimes” required by the Constitution, and that his real offense was being a Democrat. Rangel’s adaptation: sure he broke rules, but that was not what the House has called “corrupt” in the past, and thus he can hold his head up high.
In both cases, formal processes of rebuke —impeachment for Clinton, censure for Rangel—designed to punish conduct that the United States considers unacceptable for high elected officers were permanently weakened by their object’s refusal to do his part in the process, which is to demonstrate appropriate contrition and shame. Clinton has even said he was “proud” of the impeachment.
What we are increasingly seeing in our government are prominent figures who use the excuse of political bias and their own swollen sense of entitlement to avoid accountability for serious wrongdoing. Because they reject accepting the genuine shame they richly earn, they can often hold their status among supporters, often continuing to hold considerable influence and power. As David Fahrenthold wrote in the Washington Post yesterday (even before Rangel made his comments), “Voters now seem more willing to look to an accused politician’s own reaction in judging the severity of his or her conduct. The more ashamed the politician appears to be, the worse it must have been.” Rangel is only the most recent such figure, while Clinton is just (I believe) the most infuriating. Others include Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson.
Every time a prominent political figure successfully minimizes an attempt to hold him to a higher standard of conduct, the tolerance for unethical political conduct in the country grows. In July, I wrote about how Rangel’s refusal to step down corrupted his party, the public and Congress:
“An ethics corrupter is a public figure of high accomplishment, a hero who encourages his admirers and followers to allow the hero’s achievements to excuse his flawed character and values. He (or she) inevitably calls on his defenders to attack and blame those who would hold him to account for crimes or other misdeeds, creating harmful divisions between ideologies, communities, religions, classes, genders or races. What the ethics corrupter does, whether or not this successfully avoids his accountability for what he has done, is weaken the public’s resistance to corruption and misconduct, and encourage a culture of privilege in which an individual is allowed to break the law and rules in direct proportion to his or her perceived value to society. Ethics corrupters use their undeniable prestige to endorse a system of lax standards of conduct for the powerful, wealthy, well-known, talented and productive. Naturally, the lax standards create more arrogance, entitlement, and corruption.“
How ironic, but predictable, that Rangel specifically takes pride in not being “corrupt.” Just as refusing to call waterboarding torture doesn’t make it so, Rangel refusing to call his abuse of power and influence peddling politics corrupt doesn’t change their true nature either. In fact, his assertion itself is a kind of corruption, the corruption that causes a leader to believe that he doesn’t have to obey the rules. He can’t do it alone, of course. As with Clinton, much of the media have been invaluable allies for Rangel, with commentators like Katie Couric, David Broder and Chris Matthews presenting him to the public as an object of sympathy. Matthews even criticized Fox News for “overplaying” Rangel’s censure, as if a rare and historic pronouncement against one of the most powerful members of Congress was only a minor story, like the opening of Madonna’s gym.
Well, maybe Matthews is right. That’s certainly how Charlie is treating it.
Now it appears that Rangel may have broken another rule, a law in fact, by raiding a PAC within his control to pay his legal bills. But, hey, it’s not as if he went to bed with kids, right? In Rangel’s eyes, this surely isn’t corrupt either. Free of the shame that should accompany his other misdeeds, who knows Charlie Rangel may be capable of doing in the future?
With his head held high.