There is no tool, no accessory, nor weapon more valuable to a politician than words. Words define them. Words salvage them. Words can sink them.
Which is why it's interesting to study the words people are choosing to use, and, perhaps even more importantly, aren't using, when discussing the ethics probe collapsing in on Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).
A handful of lawmakers sauntered into H-137 on the first floor of the Capitol late last week for a regular meeting of New York's Democratic delegation to the House. The night before, the House defeated a measure to pay billions of dollars to those exposed to toxic fumes on September 11th when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Certainly that would be a topic of discussion over coffee and bagels. But the looming question centered on Rangel's future as the ethics saga entered a stasis for the August recess.
Rangel materialized alone on the first floor of the Capitol around 8:34 am and headed straight into the room. But four minutes later, Rangel exited just as Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) arrived for the conclave.
They hugged and kissed. And then Rangel spoke to Maloney.
"I'm leaving," he informed her.
Maloney asked why so soon. The delegation meeting just started.
"I don't think I should be in there," Rangel conceded. "And me being there may not allow honesty to prevail."
Rangel hears the chatter around Capitol Hill is. And he knows that just his presence at a routine meeting of New York Democrats may influence what those in attendance want to talk about. Frankly. In other words, it's one thing if they're just going to discuss the 9-11 health bill. It's something else if New York lawmakers meet and never discuss the elephant in the room, because, well, the elephant in question is in the room.
Words matter. And at least in that instance, Rangel wanted New York Democrats to speak freely if they elected to talk about him and his ethics crisis. Rangel's mere presence in the room could temper those words.
At 12:54 pm last Thursday, bells sounded throughout the House complex signaling a series of votes on the floor. The timing of the votes delayed the start of the House's adjudicatory subcommittee hearing, which is charged with finding whether Rangel violated House rules and potentially sanctioning him. Moments before, WCBS-TV in New York reported that Rangel was closing in on a "deal" with House investigators. So when Rangel emerged from his office in the Rayburn House Office Building, a phalanx of reporters and photographers pounced. And I immediately asked the embattled Congressman if the reports of a deal were accurate.
"I have no idea," Rangel answered. "I know one thing, until someone tells me there is, there isn't."
Of course, an analysis of those words not only indicated the lack of an agreement, but it revealed that Rangel wasn't even involved in the moment-to-moment negotiations. Incidentally, since words matter, it's important to note that many in the media reported that a settlement was near. However, few bothered to report, or didn't realize, that if there was an arrangement, it would have to be signed off on by the adjudicatory subcommittee, the full Ethics Committee and probably the entire House.
So much for a deal.
But perhaps the most intriguing words from Rangel came less than hour later. As the House completed the vote series, the adjudicatory subcommittee gaveled-in its hearing and revealed the charges against the Harlem Democrat. Meantime, another cluster of reporters teamed around Rangel as he ambled out of the Speaker's Lobby and toward a bank of elevators near the House floor.
"There is no inference of corruption," Rangel said, shocking the assembled scribes. "The idea of corruption and dishonesty has never been an issue in the committee."
Rangel's use of those words was rather extraordinary. Just a week before, a lower-tier ethics panel announced it found an "alleged violation" of House rules. That's precisely why the Ethics Committee empanelled a special adjudicatory subcommittee to try to "prove" those alleged transgressions and possibly sanction Rangel. And at that very hour, fellow lawmakers released a docket of 13 allegations against Rangel.
No "inference of corruption?" Yes, a question of corruption itself remains unanswered. But it was preposterous for Rangel to suggest there was no "inference of corruption,." At least at the precise moment an ethics panel was laying out the very charges against him.
So with an ethics process pending, reporters began hectoring other lawmakers for their reactions. Again, since words count, most lawmakers argued they hadn't "read the charges." That isn't an excuse now. But it was Thursday afternoon.
However, many lawmakers were careful not to wade into the ethical abyss at all. With Rangel's adjudicatory subcommittee now fully enjoined, the Capitol Hill buzzword was "process."
"I'd like to see this go away," said Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY), a longtime friend of Rangel's. "Let the process play out."
"The Ethics Committee process will play out and then we will know where we go from here," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "I'm not going to comment on their process."
"The process is working," offered House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). "The answer is simply the process is working as it was designed to work."
At the end of last week, reporters tracked lawmakers involved in the Rangel inquiry as they came and went from the Ethics Committee suite down a dim, lonely hallway in the Capitol basement.
Words matter in this instance, too. In fact, those who serve on investigative ethics panels rarely speak to the press. Most never uttered so much as a burp, let alone telegraphed any information about how the probe was going.
However, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) was the most forthcoming.
About what he had to eat.
On Friday morning, Welch volunteered that he devoured oatmeal for breakfast. When he returned that afternoon, the Vermont Democrat said egg salad was his lunchtime bill of fare.
At least Welch didn't have to eat his words.
That onerous task was left to Rep. Gene Green (D-TX).
Green served on the lower-level subcommittee that determined there were "alleged violations" against Rangel.
Discharged of his duties investigating the former Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Green told a clutch of reporters in the Speaker's Lobby that his panel recommended a formal "reprimand" for Rangel.
That's significant. "Reprimand" is one of the three, formal modes of discipline in the House. When it comes to recent transgressions, neither former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) nor Joe Wilson (R-SC) nor former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA) received reprimands. Instead, the House meted out informal, lesser penalties to those lawmakers. Green's declaration that "reprimand" was the investigative subcommittee's preferred punishment for Rangel is important because it is shows how seriously those lawmakers viewed the Congressman's alleged violations. They didn't think Rangel should get off with a slap on the wrist. In fact, lawmakers hadn't reprimanded any of their peers since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) in 1997.
But alas, Green's decision to chat with the press may not have been ill-advised.
Later that afternoon, the Congressman conceded he probably shouldn't have told anyone how the lower-level panel thought the House should discipline Rangel.
"I shouldn't have said that," Green sighed, who added that he issued a mea culpa to House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).
"I called her and did penance," Green said, adding another important word to the Rangel ethics lexicon.
But a new phrase entered the vernacular late last week. After reporters dogged Rangel through every nook, cranny, hallway, subway tunnel and underground passageway of the U.S. Capitol complex, even the usually loquacious Rangel had a new mantra.
"No comment," Rangel declared as he emerged from an office suite as reporters plastered him with questions.
"Saying no comment is not in my DNA," Rangel declared as he walked back into the Speaker's Lobby.
Reporters continued to fire questions at Rangel. And he bobbed around them all with the same refrain.
Finally, CBS's Jill Jackson tried something less controversial.
"What are your plans for the August break?" Jackson asked.
With that, Rangel stopped and pulled Jackson close. He whispered into her ear, just loudly enough that the press entourage could hear.
"No comment," he said under his breath as the huddle of journalists cackled.
But Rangel's shift indicated that perhaps all that was said about this has been said. Or maybe he's just weary of answering questions. Or maybe his counsel advised him to become reticent.
Either way, no words speak volumes, too.
As the weekend ground to a close, a new word emerged on Rangel's horizon. Nervous, moderate House Democrats have heard about reprimand" and "process." They're anxious about their own re-election campaigns this fall. So the Rangel saga shifts to the stasis of the August recess. And that could only enhance the use of the new word: "resignation."