Our Rangel Game: Which Eugene Robinson Is It?

On August 5, 2010, The Washington Post published a short editorial by Eugene Robinson with the title "Charlie Rangel's no crook." But on October 9, 2009, the same Eugene Robinson penned a column titled "Charlie Rangel's Cloud: An Ethics Case Could Drag Democrats Down." The closer we get to elections, Robinson seems to get progressively less impressed with the case against Rangel. This is his new Rangel-name-is-cleared line:

Charlie Rangel's no crook. He’s right to insist on the opportunity to clear his name, because the charges against him range from the technical all the way to the trivial.

All right, there’s one exception: On his federal tax returns, Rangel failed to declare rental income from a vacation property he owns in the Dominican Republic -- a mortifying embarrassment for the one-time chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the tax code. But certain facts about this transgression rarely get mentioned. For one thing, Rangel’s so-called “villa” can’t be very palatial, since it cost only $82,750 when he bought it in 1987. For another, Rangel has already filed amended tax returns and paid everything he owed, plus penalties and interest.

The remaining charges are yawn-inducing. Even assuming that the allegations, as presented to the House Ethics Committee, are wholly true, the case against Rangel has a Gertrude Stein problem: There’s no there there.

Compare that mistakes-were-made line to what Robinson wrote last fall: 

House Democrats had better start taking the ethics allegations against Rep. Charlie Rangel seriously. I know it's difficult for those steeped in Capitol Hill's hermetic culture to understand, but a verdict of "mistakes were made" -- which a lot of Democrats would like to reach -- doesn't cut it in the real world. Strange as it seems. Seriously.

Welcome to Eugene vs. Eugene. He is seriously beating himself up. There's more from last year:

If you win big majorities in both the House and Senate by railing against a "culture of corruption" in Washington, as the Democratic Party did, voters tend to get the wacky notion that you actually mean what you say.

The violations that Rangel is alleged to have committed are, inconveniently for him, easy for anyone to understand. The most serious, perhaps, is the allegation that he failed to pay taxes on about $75,000 in income from renting out a beach house that he owns in the Dominican Republic. For the chairman of the House committee that writes tax legislation not to pay his fair share in taxes would be as bad as, say, for the secretary of the Treasury not to pay his fair share in taxes. (Hold it, maybe that's a bad example.)

The most stunning alleged violation is more of a technicality: That on required financial disclosure forms, Rangel failed to list more than $500,000 in assets. The average citizen isn't likely to have half a million bucks somehow slip his mind, since the average citizen doesn't have anything near half a million bucks.

And we're not talking easily overlooked "Antiques Roadshow" assets -- a dusty painting in the attic that turns out to be the work of a second-tier Old Master, or a rickety chair in the basement that experts date as 18th century. What Rangel failed to declare were liquid assets -- a credit union account worth more than $250,000 and an investment account also worth more than $250,000 -- plus some real estate he owns in New Jersey and assorted stock holdings.

If you quoted this column back to New Eugene, he might accuse you of being a partisan Republican hack. New Eugene also had this to say on MSNBC's Morning Joe (as MRC's Rachel Burnett found). Scarborough said the messes around Rangel and Maxine Waters aren't good for the Democrats as a whole, even though Joe likes Maxine "very much." Robinson replied that Rangel's replies were changing his formerly tough journalistic mind:

On the other hand, it is what happens if you run against culture of corruption; you actually crack down and ramp up the ethics committee and, you know, look for the stuff you find it. I think my assessment of the two cases would actually be a bit different from yours, actually. I haven't read that deeply into the Waters case but that really sounds pretty bad. I mean, on its face it sounds like there should be a refusal by her and stayed away from that. I have, however, gone through Charlie Rangel's 32-page response to the charges against him. And it's still very bad for him politically. I think he's not without any legs to stand on, however. We keep saying 13 ethics charges. It really boils down to three or four incidents and when you actually look at them, you know, some of them are not all that troublesome. So I actually understand why he wants to have his day in court.

PS: In 2005, Robinson giddily looked forward to Tom DeL:ay in jail in a piece titled "Immoral Majority." 

So pardon me for going way beyond schadenfreude to outright giddiness at the prospect that the Hammer will finally get nailed.

It may be too much to hope that the former House majority leader -- and how good it feels to write "former" -- will actually be convicted and do jail time. The indictment for criminal conspiracy returned by a Texas grand jury on Wednesday is for alleged campaign finance violations that are the rough equivalent of money laundering, which is not the easiest crime to prove in court.

Five years later, and Eugene's still waiting for that conviction. 

Washington Post Eugene Robinson Maxine Waters Tom DeLay Charles Rangel
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