The Great Guy Theory of History

Charlie Rangel forgot that America’s voters want more than a great guy.

We consider today the sad case of Charlie Rangel, the beloved 20-term Congressman from New York City.

You’ve probably heard of the Great Man Theory of History. The Charlie Rangel story can be explained by the Great Guy Theory of History.

Men have a shorthand way of sorting through the torrents of human behavior. They’ll say someone is a “great guy.”

Like in: “Have you ever met Charlie? Great guy.”

That’s it. Two words. “Great guy.” You’re in the club. Vouched for. Cleared for take off.

Politics seems to attract great guys, and there’s been no greater guy than Charlie Rangel. Until recently, you could have filled Madison Square Garden with famous and connected people who’d vouch for Charlie Rangel.

One reason long-serving politicians pile up great-guy points wherever they go is so no one will ever think of throwing them over. But now it looks as if Charlie Rangel is going over the side, and this is causing anguish among his many friends.

Someone once said that there are no genuine friends in politics. Deep and complex relationships maybe, but friendship? Don’t go looking for it.

Sounding like a don in “The Godfather,” President Obama told CBS last week: “He is somebody who is at the end of his career, 80 years old. I’m sure that what he wants is to be able to end his career with dignity, and my hope is that happens.”

The biggest problem is the punishment. It used to be the political club would give a Charlie Rangel a great-guy’s pass; the House would issue a letter of reproval or maybe a reprimand. There was a time when it was unthinkable that the House would censure or expel a Charlie Rangel for these infractions.

We are not in that time.

Mr. Rangel says he’s innocent, presumably of any crime. Maybe so, but this is a cruel moment. Congress’s approval rating sits at 22%. If we had no-confidence votes in the U.S., that would be it.

Until recently, people inside the Beltway had a hard time figuring out why the tea parties exist. They exist because disgust is still a basic human emotion.

The House ethics panel’s document, “In the Matter of Charles B. Rangel,” available on the committee’s website, is a 41-page summary of why people are disgusted with Congress and Washington. And Albany, Sacramento, Trenton and Springfield.

Nancy Pelosi keeps talking about how she was going to “drain the swamp.” This is unfair to swamps. Like politics, a swamp is a complex ecosystem. It may smell at times, but the smell has a biological purpose. Politicians aren’t meadowlarks and butterflies. Everyone knows that. They slither and coil and provide crude balance to the ecosystem. If we “drained the swamp,” everything would die.

But here’s Charlie Rangel’s problem. Here’s how Congress’s approval fell to 22% and why the voters have decided it’s time to abandon the swamp.

There are 535 members of Congress and thousands more in state legislatures. When citizens vote one of their own into these offices, they transmit to these individuals significant power and status. People who before the election were no more special than anyone else suddenly are called Congressman this or Senator that. But the deal is that you are supposed to try to do some good in return for the gift of power and status.

An infinitesimal number of these politicians do enough significant good to deserve a statue, much less their name on a building or highway. Politicians who think they are owed immortality—such as a Rangel Center—are mistaken.

The committee document on Mr. Rangel is an unpleasant read. Press accounts can’t do justice to the cumulative impact of paragraph after paragraph describing a political life disconnected from the original, basic bargain.

A public trial would be ruinous for Mr. Rangel. Conventional wisdom holds it would be ruinous as well for other Democrats. But I think a trial would damage incumbents in both parties. There’s nothing uniquely “Democratic” about the Rangel story told here.

Congress just passed a financial regulation bill and people wonder how it can be 2000 pages long. The Rangel saga suggests why. The reason it’s 2000 pages long has less to do with the need for regulation and a lot to do with the needs of Washington. Every financial player in America will have to contribute money, one way or another, to Washington’s great guys—to their campaigns, their legacy projects, to the former members of the congressional family who will lobby and lubricate the bill’s incomprehensible details.

That’s the deal in Washington now. But that’s not the deal as understood by most American voters. American politics is about to go through one of its periodic purifications. Decent, competent members of Congress will get swept away. Charlie Rangel, a 20-termer and a great guy, will go down in ignominy.

In the old days, guys who were lucky or smart left office or died before the sheriff arrived. This year the voters have the Capitol surrounded. In January we’re going to get the 112th Congress and a chance for better than what we’ve had. Let’s get on with it.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal


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