Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is becoming a metaphor for almost all the sins of our age.
Let us count the ways.
How about corruption? Currently, Rangel is under investigation by two House subcommittees for illegally holding four rent-stabilized apartments in New York and not disclosing more than $75,000 in income from a rental villa he owns. He also took free Caribbean trips paid for by corporate cronies and used his congressional letterhead to press for money for the City College of New York's new educational center, which bears his name.
Rangel also acknowledged that he improperly listed his assets, as required by law, and failed to report additional checking accounts valued between $250,000 and $500,000 princely sums acquired on a congressional salary.
Try also hypocrisy. Rangel is the head of the Ways and Means Committee that writes the nation's income tax policy. The politician, who for generations has urged higher taxes, has chronically schemed to avoid paying them. Don't dare try that if you are a waitress or schoolteacher.
In this regard, Rangel is similar to other Obama cabinet nominees and secretaries like Tom Daschle and Timothy Geithner advocates of higher taxes, and bigger government who themselves were in violation of the federal tax code. In this weird new moral landscape, good public intentions apparently offset private lapses.
After the Republican scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA), Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised to "drain the swamp," to end the Republican "culture of corruption" and to create "the most ethical Congress ever." Proclaiming ethical reform apparently means you have already enacted it.
In reality, by her tolerance for the ethically challenged like Rangel, John Murtha (D-PA), and others, Speaker Pelosi only reminds Americans that influence peddling and corruption are bipartisan sins: those out of power allege them, those in power commit them.
Rangel's situation also illustrates the problem of racial scapegoating by the nation's elite, another example of rampant hypocrisy. During the health-care meltdown, overwhelmed by his own ethics problems, a frustrated Rangel lashed out at supposedly racist Americans: "Some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, 'how did this happen?'"
Actually, they may wonder how it happened that the more successful and powerful you become in America, the more proof there is that the country is racist. Rangel would have us believe that an African-American's election to the presidency, made possible in large part by millions of white supporters, translates into racist opposition to health-care legislation or into Charles Rangel being unfairly charged with tax dodging.
Some of the most privileged Americans in the country have lectured us on race. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Columbia Law School grad, accused the country of cowardice for its reluctance to speak about race on his terms. President and Harvard Law alum Barack Obama asserted that a Cambridge, Mass., police officer acted stupidly in taking his friend, Harvard Professor Skip Gates, down to the station after his invective-riddled hissy fit. New York Governor David Paterson blames his sinking poll numbers on white racism, more prominent than ever, he thinks, in the age of Obama.
Then there is the case of controversial environmental czar and Yale Law graduate Van Jones claimed a "vicious smear campaign" did him in. Jones, remember, resigned after comparing President Bush to a crack addict, and asserting that white people were polluting the ghetto, and that only white students commit mass murders in the public schools, and, most disturbingly, after signing a "truther" petition calling for an investigation of the Bush administration's purported role in causing 9/11. There were indeed smears that were racist but largely on the part of Jones himself.
In all these disturbing trends, one Rep. Charles Rangel seems to be on the cutting edge. And still these political truths remain self-evident:
Congressional reform Democrats are as corrupt as Republican reformers. Those who craft tax policy routinely violate it without compunction. Rules don't apply to those in Washington, who are generous with someone else's money, but stingy with their own. The false charge of racism has devolved into a convenient defense when elites find themselves trapped in their own self-created legal and ethical messes, or things don't go their way.
If we wish to understand why congressional approval ratings are at historic lows, why corruption seems to be more blatant than ever, and why the public is tiring of racial scapegoating by the well-off, then we need look no further than Charles Rangel, emblem of our times.
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Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. Comment by clicking here.