The Star-Crossed Fates of Ted Stevens and Charlie Rangel

The quote was innocuous enough.

It was midday last Wednesday and there were rumblings that the House of Representatives could torpedo its August recess to return to Washington to approve a $26 billion state aid bill.

With the House out of session, I worked the phones and email. One senior Democratic aide intimated that it would be a “politically good move” to recall lawmakers to Washington to okay the state rescue package.

But caveat emptor, my source cautioned.

“Any time you bring members back to do one thing, you run the risk of other things popping up,” the aide warned.

The aides worry was prescient. Because that’s precisely what happened at 12:47 pm Tuesday. At that moment, embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) commandeered the House floor to deliver a rambling, 20-minute soliloquy about his ethics charges. House rules allow lawmakers to address the House on a “point of personal privilege” to defend themselves if someone has impugned their integrity or motives.

In the case of Rangel, that “someone” is a House ethics panel that charged the Harlem Democrat with 13 counts of Congressional misconduct. An ethics trial looms for Rangel in September, weeks before the midterm elections.

“I am not going away,” boasted a defiant Rangel, who dared fellow lawmakers to throw him out of the House.

“If I can’t get my dignity back here, then fire your best shot of getting rid of me through expulsion,” Rangel barked.

For the record, the ethics investigative subcommittee that probed Rangel’s alleged improprieties only recommended a reprimand, not expulsion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) may have praised lawmakers for rushing back to Washington pass the state aid bill. But even the House’s rare session in the middle of the August recess didn’t score top news billing. The marquee Capitol Hill story of the day was Charlie Rangel’s impromptu rebuff of the ethics process.

“I’m the guy that raised money in Republican districts to get you here,” Rangel scolded skittish Democrats who fret the party’s ethics woes could diminish their re-election chances.

Republicans reveled in Rangel’s theatrics upstaging Pelosi’s legislative agenda.

“We couldn’t have written a script this good,” mused one GOP aide via email. “We must be living right.”

Of course, few could blame Rangel for defending  himself. Many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are leery of weighing in on the fate of their colleague, lest the same misfortune befall them.

“If (the ethics process) doesn’t work for me, it may not work for you,” Rangel lectured. “Don’t let this happen to you. Not all of you would be able to stand it.”

That line crystallizes the quintessential Charlie Rangel. Left for dead on a Korean battlefield in 1950, mountains for others are but pebbles to him.

“I left my right to complain about anything again in life,” Rangel wrote in his 2007 political memoir And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since.

The House wasn’t scheduled to meet Tuesday. Few on Capitol Hill had any clue that Rangel would seize the floor to deliver his most full-throated defense to date in the middle of an already peculiar House session.

But perhaps it was fate. For Rangel’s improvised oratory suddenly intersected with the star-crossed death of the late-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) in a plane crash.

At first blush, Charlie Rangel and Ted Stevens don’t seem to have much in common. Rangel is black. Stevens was white. Rangel’s a Democrat. Stevens was a Republican. Rangel is boisterous and gregarious. Stevens could be surly and curt. Rangel represents Harlem and locales like Marcus Garvey Park, Sugar Hill and Lenox Avenue. Stevens hailed from sprawling Alaska, advocating for outposts like Deadhorse, Nunapitchuk and False Pass.

But truly, both were kindred spirits.

Rangel entered Congress in 1971. Stevens came to Washington in 1968. Both rose to lead the most-prominent committees in Congress. Rangel wielded the gavel at Ways and Means. Stevens presided over the Senate Appropriations panel. Both men boasted deep relationships with lawmakers across the aisle. And near the end of their storied careers, both men faced ethics scandals that threatened their legacies.

Both were not about to give up.

Rangel survived his war wounds. Stevens made it out alive from a 1978 plane crash that killed his first wife.

“I have been losing a lot of sleep over these allegations," Rangel conceded during his Tuesday speech.

It was November, 18 2008. And while Rangel contends he hasn’t yet had a bad day, most Stevens would probably pick that particular day. It was Stevens 85th birthday. It was also the day that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) prepped a resolution to expel Stevens from the Senate after a jury convicted the Alaska Republican of improperly accepting gifts. The Justice Department later overturned the conviction on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. November 18, 2008 was also the day that Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), whose father was a Congressman and died in a 1972 plane crash, declared victory in his race with Stevens.

I located Stevens in a Capitol corridor near the Old Senate chamber. And Stevens circa 2008 sounded a lot like Rangel Tuesday.

“I haven't had a night's sleep now in almost four months,” Stevens said. “It's hard to for me to even answer some of your questions properly.”

A few weeks ago, just off the House floor, Rangel seemed exasperated as he addressed a clutch of reporters about his own ethics woes.

“This has been a nightmare,” Rangel said. “I wish this had never happened."

On that fateful day in 2008, Stevens seemed similarly incensed.

“I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anyone. (Not on) my worst enemy," said Stevens.

But the duo diverts there.

Few noticed observed Stevens’ 85th birthday on that November day two years ago. In fact, the late senator told me that no one had wished him a happy birthday until I approached him in the hall and extended my hand.

Even though Rangel turned 80 in June, he’s scheduled an elaborate birthday bash that doubles as a fundraiser at the Plaza Hotel in New York tonight. Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson are slated to perform.

On Stevens 85th birthday, I asked Stevens if he planned to celebrate.

“No. Not really. Just keeping going,” he responded.

Finally another reporter wished Stevens a happy birthday before he ducked into the Capitol’s Mike Mansfield Room.

“I hope you have a better one on your day,” Stevens said.

Rangel’s posh spree is tonight. But amid the looming ethics cloud, one wonders if Rangel’s 80th is as bad as Stevens 85th.