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Chairman of the Money

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Assemblyman Rangel walking the streets in 1970 after havng defeated Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the Democratic primary.  

Military conscription has little to do with Ways and Means, but Charlie Rangel, the most canny of loose cannons, has never been one to underplay his hand in a big spot. “You bet your life,” said Rangel, who has long opposed the volunteer Army, saying politicians would think twice about starting wars if their own children had to fight them.

Rangel told Schieffer: “If we’re going to challenge Iran and challenge North Korea and then, as some people have asked, to send more troops to Iraq, we can’t do that without a draft … How can anyone support the war and not support the draft?”

The reaction in the blogosphere and every other “-osphere” was loud and unanimous: Rangel was bonkers. The limp liberals of the New York Times editorial page, haven to who knows how many recipients of 2-S college deferments, said a draft would not achieve the aim of making “the armed forces more equitably representative of American society.” The chicken hawks of the right wing lambasted Rangel’s assertion that the military was inordinately composed of “people who can’t get a job doing anything better.” There were plenty of potential Rhodes scholars and Hardee’s CFOs slogging through the Iraqi sands, angry radio voices declared. To suppose otherwise was downright unpatriotic. As a testament to Rangel’s runaway moonbatism, commentators pointed out that when he introduced his draft bill in 2004, it was defeated 402 to 2.

“Rangel didn’t even vote for his own bill!” complained an eye-rolling Dick Cheney to Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (Rangel says he voted nay to protest Republican procedural finagling. John Murtha voted for it.)

Rangel, who has that raised-bushy-eyebrow, who me? thing down pat, purports to be “flabbergasted by the fuss” caused by his draft statements. “I’ve been talking about this for years and no one paid attention. I guess that’s the power of the majority.”

Gee, you think?

A world-class press hound, Rangel was soon wall-to-wall on the tube. “I want to push the debate, make them think about what exactly war means,” says Rangel, with the assurance of a man whose position on the issue has been impeccable for the past 56 years, ever since November 30, 1950, which was when he found himself, along with 40 or so other members of the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion of the Second Infantry Division, hunkered down in a foxhole near the Yalu River.

“We had these 10,000 crazy-ass Chinese coming down on us,” recalls Rangel. “All I could hear was bugles, screams, and gunfire. Dead, bloated bodies were everywhere. Guys’ toes were falling off from frostbite. I thought we were deader than Kelsey’s nuts. The Chinese dropped leaflets saying they were colored people like us, and when we got back to the States we weren’t going to be allowed to swim in pools in Miami Beach and how could that be worth fighting for?

“In a situation like that, you don’t think about saving the world from communism, you think about surviving,” says Rangel, who despite shrapnel wounds managed to lead several soldiers to safety, for which he got the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, both of which now sit on a shelf in his 125th Street office. “People who haven’t been in war don’t understand what a difference a wrong step here, a bad decision there makes … That’s the question in Iraq. How long can you wait? By tomorrow it’s gonna be too late for someone. It is a matter of time … time running out.”

It makes sense that time would be on the mind of someone past his 76th birthday, even a workaholic (sixteen tightly scheduled hours per day is routine) who looks fifteen years younger and plans to keep going forever. Rangel gives you his happy-warrior line about how he’s “never had a bad day” since getting out of that foxhole, but he admits to feeling “the claustrophobia” of time. He says the chairmanship “couldn’t have come any later for me.”

Fact is, if the Democrats hadn’t won this time, Rangel would have retired. It would have solved a lot of problems; his wife, Alma, had been after him to stop for years. Mostly, though, “I couldn’t take it anymore, how the Republicans were running things. Someone like Tom DeLay has no interest in legislating. He just wants to push through policy. This wasn’t the Congress I’d grown up in. The House of Representatives was being destroyed right in front of me. Sending people to prison camp without trial, wiretapping without warrant. This was another kind of America. I didn’t want to be part of it.”

Word that Rangel might quit sent a chill through Harlem. It isn’t that he doesn’t have his rivals. The Reverend Calvin Butts, who has Adam Powell’s old job at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, has sniped at Rangel for years, once calling him “a timid politician” willing to “settle for crumbs.” But no one wanted to see all that seniority (some might say pork) go down the tubes. Local papers ran pleading headlines: BROTHER CONGRESSMAN! DON'T GO!


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