Rep. Charles Rangel—statesman, icon, war hero, and Congressional force of nature—stands accused of ethics violations many and serious, ranging from using his influence to raise money for an institution named after him, to accepting trips and other benefits from special interests, to failing to pay his taxes. Actually, “accused” is a technicality in Rangel’s case, or rather cases, because the facts are plain and damning in every single one. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially refused to do anything about Rangel (he was eventually asked to step down, if only “temporarily” from his position as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee) by saying, “Wait for the results of the investigation.” She meant, considering the shameless politicization of the House ethics process, “Let’s see if he can skate by this time.” He couldn’t. Rangel did all of the conflicted, reckless and irresponsible things he has been accused of, and actually admits doing most of them. He refuses to resign, however, and proclaims his “innocence,” not because he didn’t do unethical things, but because he doesn’t believe it should matter.
He doesn’t believe it should matter because he is Charles B. Rangel, champion of the New York district of Harlem, battler for civil rights and justice for common people with real problems. He has helped families and businesses and students, and made life better for countless people. When you are this good, this selfless, and do this hard, hard work for 40 years, a few ethics violations, even a lot of them, are “nothing,” and destroying an epic career like his because of them is pure ingratitude. This argument makes Charlie Rangel an ethics corrupter, and if he sticks with it, he will do more damage than all of his ethics violations combined.
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.
Most of the world has succumbed to this double standard for centuries, and American is hardly immune to it. The Washington Post talked to many of Rangel’s constituents in Harlem, and the overwhelming sentiment the reporters heard was, “We don’t care what they say Charlie did. He’s been a great Congressman!” Some think Rangel’s problems are due to a Republican conspiracy; some think it is racism. If Rangel is brought down by the ethics charges, they will be angry and resentful against both political parties and the Congress. That is what the Congressman has sown with his refusal to accept responsibility for his actions.
Ethics corrupters cause their defenders to embrace conduct they know are wrong, gradually causing them to regard them as less wrong, or even not wrong at all. Bill Clinton’s defenders ended up trying to justify or minimize lying under oath in court by a sitting President, adultery and employer sexual harassment. Barry Bonds’ fans find themselves excusing cheating (“everybody does it!) and illegal drug use (“…but it wasn’t banned in baseball!). Now Rep. Rangel is forcing his supporters to accept abuse of power, financial conflicts, and disrespect for the obligations of public office and leadership.
We should all hope that he realizes in time that this is no way to end an epic career of distinguished public service, by warping the values of the people who admire him most. Rep. Rangel should admit that his ethical principles became tainted over time, apologize, and resign with dignity. He should not pass those tainted principles on to the community, where they will do more damage.