Saturday, April 10, 2010

Harlem's Dynastic Politics and Rangel v. Powell

"The boldness to believe in nothing," Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

Fathers and sons. Old European ideas, like monarchy and aristocracy, linger on almost unrecognizably within the American psyche, in trace form, not unlike shared familial speech patterns or the comon lore of an especially close network of kin, taken for under the passage of Time.

We have our Adamses and Kennedys and Gores and Udalls. Sometimes American politics in all its family dynamics more closely resembles a Folger Library production of "Henry IV, Part II" on the subject of dynastic drama than anything ever devised by Theodore Dreiser or for that matter Ralph Ellison. The Bushes -- our modern Adamses -- added a dash of Sophocles to the mix, rendered, of course, in a tortured Texas twang and not in the original Ancient Greek. It is not surprising then, keeping that in mind, that Congressman Charlie Rangel was the New York face of Hillary Clinton -- she of that other American political dynasty -- sparring occasionally with that dynastic spoiler Barack Obama. It would appear, ironically, that dynastic blood is indeed thicker than race.

New York, to be sure, is no stranger to dynastic politics. We have our Clintons (via "Hope") and Cuomos and Pattersons and Vallones galore. Harlem, which has been represented in the United States Congress for over half a century by either Charlie Rangel or Adam Clayton Powell, is about to be the battleground for yet another double-barrelled heavyweight Powell-Rangel match-up. Friends: it's about to get hotter than Sylvia's Triple Strong Hot Sauce.

Not too long ago the bow-tied Rangel was riding high as "Mr. Chairman" of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, seated on the left hand of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful House Speakers in modern times. He seemed politically invincible, in a safe district in the thick of a Democratic restoration after Dubya, our John Quincy Adams, exited (the political stage) right.

The pendulum swings. The bloom is now off that rose, and Rangel's committee chairmanship, 40 years in the making, has left the building. Charlie Rangel, politically, hasn't been this weak ever since achieving the Upper Manhattan seat. As we learned in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, with the Kingmaker's demise, so go the fortunes of the kingdom.

Enter, stage left: Adam Clayton Powell, IV, son of the legendary former Harlem Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, III. It would be a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions if only Powell, the challenger to be, wasn't so tragically flawed himself. Then again, the transformation of tragic flaws into heroic virtue is what propels the narrative flow in Shakespeare's Histories. Can Adam Clayton Powell, IV, become the politikon zoon -- or, in New York political terminology, the mnsch" -- he's always wanted to be? Can he redeem the tarnished Powell name?

The Tragedy of Charlie Rangel is that he has become, over the course of four decades, the very thing which he ran against at the beginning of his storied political career. Congressman Charlie Rangel, "the dean of New York state's congressional delegation, the political prince of Harlem," has become what he thought he had defeated. Corruption incarnate. As I wrote in 2008:

He began with the best of intentions, and so it makes the tragedy all the more poignant. And the power involved gives the tragedy an Operatic score. Harlem has waited so long for its voice to be heard in the halls of power. Charlie Rangel, before he was a 19 term Congressman and Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, was a Harlem Community activist. He was sharp and hungry and "pure" before being corrupted by what can only be properly construed as the anxiety of political influence. Adam Clayton Powell, who, at the time, represented Harlem, had gone corrupt. The power -- and the drink and the women and the money -- had blinded Powell, Rangel's immediate predecessor, to such a degree that he was making a proper fool of Harlem in the Halls of Congress, which, after censure he saw fit to rarely attend despite drawing a salary. Rangel, in due course, was part of a delegation that went to Bimini to bring Powell back from the brink. From The Tavis Smiley Show:

"Rangel: But when Adam just went to Bimini after we - I was one of the petitioners that in a Supreme Court case - and just didn't come home at all, I told Governor Rockefeller he ought to take away this arrest warrant that he had for nonpayment of a court thing, and the governor told me that he wanted Adam back, 'Go tell him to come back.'

"I went to Bimini and talked with Adam, and after a lot (laughs) of humiliation and embarrassment, I came back convinced that if I didn't run against Adam, Adam was gonna get beaten and I could be beaten just for defending Adam. So he was not a great challenge. He came home, but he had been away a long, long time in Bimini. So during the campaign I never said I ran against Adam Powell. I said I was running for that empty seat, because Adam really quit."

Powell's corruptions seem to have rubbed off on Rangel in the intervening years. Imagine the moxie to name a City College building -- the "monument to me" -- to oneself, while one is still living! And we will not entertain the latest, sleazy Upper West Side real estate dealings. This incredibly arrogant push to name public memorials to the living after oneself is not just "ghetto," it is borderline megalomaniacal.

Adam Clayton Powell IV formally announced a primary challenge against embattled Rep. Charlie Rangel. He made his announcement today, at the "lucky" corner of Lexington Avenue and 116th Street, where Harlem history has often been made. There is some fearful symmetry to the possibility of the son inheriting, after an intervening period, the seat of his father. There is also more than a little bit of dynastic politics involved, the kind not always particularly welcome in an American democracy despite the name recognition advantages (for further reference see: Obama, Barack, anti-dynast). Still, Powell has not really distinguished himself in City Council or the Assembly, where he now serves. One might even argue that all of the privileges of being the son of a notable political leader makes it harder to distinguish oneself (for further reference see Dubya Bush, pre-Laura)

Powell the Younger first ran, hotheaded, against Rangel in 1994 and, of course, lost badly (not unlike the equally hotheaded and dynastically-inclined Andrew Cuomo in 2002). It was a terribly rash decision whose outcome could have been predicted by anyone with a sharp eye, an effort that set his dynastic efforts back significantly. Since then, Powell has been largely undistinguished in local politics -- losing a bid for Manhattan Borough President and earlier this year was acquitted of driving while intoxicated charges. Then again, Andrew Cuomo has managed to control his thumotic excesses at reviving the Cuomo dynasty and appears poised to reclaim the Governorship of New York, beginning where his father's career abruptly left off.

Might Powell the Younger follow that same roadmap?

This is, to be sure, the stuff of Shakespeare -- Prince Hal, to be exact -- how members of political families transform themselves into something better, "avenging" the family name in the process. But is this psychodrama appropriate to a democracy, or, more important for our purposes: Harlem?

That answer will be left to the voters of Upper Manhattan.

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