As I write this, Rep. Charles Rangel is asking his colleagues for mercy, as they decide what his punishment should be for eleven counts of ethics misdeeds including abuse of his office and tax evasion. He has made the unconvincing argument that it all adds up to sloppiness, not corruption, though the sheer weight and breadth of the charges against him indicate otherwise. Rangel’s main defense, as he tried to stave off censure, was the testimony of Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and compatriot of Martin Luther King, soon to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lewis described Rangel as a “good and decent man, an honest man,” a Korean War vet who came to Selma, Ala. and marched alongside King and Lewis in the cause of civil rights, which Rangel, Lewis said, fought for his entire career.
Lewis’s character endorsement is completely irrelevant to Rangel’s current corruption issues. I don’t think it should be allowed. By what logic does Rangel’s civil rights record and military service mitigate his breach of trust as an elected member of Congress? There is none. Rangel and Lewis are arguing the disreputable “ethics savings account” rationalization, in essence saying that if an individual accumulates enough good deed, he can use them later to offset the consequences of bad ones. If true, this would mean, ironically, that the more a public figure’s accomplishments and history of good works earns the public’s trust, the less trustworthy he is in fact, because he has all those accumulated ethics points in his career bank, and can cash them in at any time for self-enriching corruption. The more admirable he has been, the more ethical his deeds, the more unethical he can afford to be without fear of punishment.
Nonsense. Corrupting nonsense. Rangel and Lewis would have us believe what….that a record of civil rights support excuses tax evasion? That Congressmen who marched in Selma can get away with corrupt acts that younger, whiter Representatives cannot? That if a civil rights icon says that you are honest, the fact that your recent conduct has been dishonest should be ignored?
What they are arguing is what every prominent individual who was once respected, honored and trusted has argued when they are caught violating their own principles and betraying the public. “You owe me. I deserve a pass this time, and if you don’t let me off, you are ingrates. I earned mercy and forgiveness, and you have to balance what I have done against all the good I did.” It is a corrupting argument because it is so persuasive, yet it is unjust and manipulative. Rangel is as accountable for corruption as any freshman member, and his misconduct is more damaging because of his prominence, not less. A career of accumulated good deeds and admirable works can be fairly used to create trust, but must never be used to excuse the abuse of it.