It was a young Charlie Rangel who came to Capitol Hill from Harlem in January 1971, fresh from a narrow primary victory over the flamboyant and powerful Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rangel was a decorated Korean War veteran and an anti-war member of the New York Assembly—anti-Vietnam War, that is—who arrived in Washington at a tumultuous time. The Watergate scandal was still a few years down the road, but winds of discontent gusted across the country, evident in peace protests, urban disorders and Cold War tensions. Meanwhile, heroin flowed into New York communities from Southeast Asia.
He arrived in time to co-found the Congressional Black Caucus.
When the new lawmaker took the oath of office for the first time, he couldn’t predict that it marked the dawn of a congressional career that would span eight presidencies and more than four decades.
Now, as Rangel retires at age 86, the second-most senior member of the House, his native New York City has changed, the country has changed and Congress has changed.
I was privileged to work for him for four and a half years, full-time and part-time, in Washington and New York. I started in Rangel’s first term as a summer intern and moved up to constituent caseworker, legislative assistant and press aide before taking a newspaper reporting job in Albany.
I was privileged to see him develop from a Washington newcomer to an effective and respected leader, willing to vigorously support presidents when he agreed with them and to vigorously fight them when he didn’t.
Like other newbies to seniority, he initially landed on standing committees dealing with topics of national import but of little interest to him or his district: space and public works. With heroin and the fear of violent crime besetting New York, fortunately he also found a home on the Select Committee on Crime.
By the summer of 1974, public works and space were off his plate and he was one of three African-Americans on the Judiciary Committee, with Nixon’s impeachment at the top of the panel’s agenda. “This president,” he said in opening remarks at the impeachment hearings, “held secret the knowledge that he had participated in the most bizarre criminal conspiracy ever recorded in the history of the United States.”
The following year, Rangel moved to the Ways and Means Committee with the backing of Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. However, I was naïve in the ways and means of congressional power and considered the switch a bad idea. After all, Judiciary handled hot issues such as gun control, crime and immigration—not boring tax, Social Security and tariff stuff.
But Rangel knew best and eventually rose to chair the committee.
I have no insights on the ethics violations that led to his censure in 2010, but I’m privileged to know him as a compassionate, passionate, impassioned and committed public servant, as a mentor willing to hire a long-haired, anti-war new college grad for his staff and as a lawyer who could undoubtedly have made far more money outside Congress.
As he said at the time, “I know in my heart I am not going to be judged by this Congress. I’ll be judged by my life in its entirety.”
I’m also privileged to know about Rangel’s longstanding principles on issues that matter, including individual rights, quality education, economic opportunity and anti-militarism. I still have an “End the War Now Rangel” button from his first re-election campaign in 1972. Although it referred to the Vietnam War, he could wear the same button today to show steadfast opposition to the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Every political career will come to an end, including mine,” Rangel wrote in his 2007 memoir. “And if St. Peter’s not overly impressed with my legislative record, then I’ll just have to tell him that I did the best I could.”
Eric Freedman is a professor of Journalism at Michigan State University, East Lansing, and co-author of “African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History” (Congressional Quarterly Press). He was on Rangel’s staff from 1971 to 1976.