Commentary: Charles Rangel didn't learn from mistakes

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverDecember 9, 2010 

Even when he's just sitting around his Chapel Hill apartment, watching TV and reading The New Yorker magazine, Chuck Stone is classy. He's resplendent this day in a green plaid sport coat, orange shirt, bowtie and saddle shoes.

Stone, a retired UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor and renowned columnist, is so classy that you know he isn't going to bad-mouth Charles Rangel, the Harlem congressman who cost Stone his job 40 years ago.

That doesn't mean Stone isn't tempted to when our conversation invariably turns to Rangel, who was censured by the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

"I thought about writing Charlie and saying, 'What goes around comes around,' " he said, and laughed softly after I dropped in on him last week to chat.

What has gone around is that Rangel, 80, is now besieged by the same kinds of problems that bedeviled his predecessor, the flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr., during his 25 years as a congressman. Stone was Powell's chief administrative aide when Congress refused to seat Powell, even though he had been re-elected. The Supreme Court eventually ruled he'd been treated unfairly. Powell, though, had been damaged enough for Rangel to squeak out a victory two years later.

"Charlie wasn't really attacking Powell," Stone said. "He just went along with every one else. He was never leading the attacks."

Citing the similarities of the travails both men experienced, Stone noted, "It's like Lord Acton said: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Both men, he said, entered politics "to do good but stayed to do well. They all suffer from this particular weakness. Adam loved the good life, and Charlie did, too. You'd think these guys would learn something. They don't learn."

Rangel certainly didn't avoid Powell's pitfalls. Among other things, he was rebuked for not paying taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic. Powell, Stone recalled, "married Yvette, a Puerto Rican woman who was still living in Puerto Rico." That's one reason he was as famous for his absences from Congress as he was for his considerable effectiveness as a legislator.

"I went to see [highly regarded attorney to the powerful] Edward Bennett Williams, and he told me to tell Adam to stop thumbing his nose at the whole Congress," Stone recalled. "I told Adam he needed to be humble... That wasn't his strong suit. I just couldn't go on the House floor with him. I waited in the office. He came back and had tears in his eyes. I said 'What happened?' and he said 'They kicked me out.' He was stunned."

Powell and Rangel were two of the most debonair men ever elected to Congress - when you're representing Harlem, you've got to represent - and they were both effective legislators. Rangel led the House Ways & Means Committee, and Powell, in addition to being chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, introduced anti-lynching legislation.

Sadly for both, their good deeds and unparalleled style may be overshadowed by questions about their ethical lapses.

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