Image: Rep. Charlie Rangel laughs with supporters
Lucas Jackson  /  Reuters
U.S. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, center, laughs with Reverend Al Sharpton, right, during his 80th birthday party.
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updated 8/12/2010 10:34:54 AM ET 2010-08-12T14:34:54

NEW YORK – It was the antithesis of Chelsea Clinton's wedding — a glittering social event on the New York political calendar that many prominent politicians wished (very privately) they did not have to attend and hoped (very secretly) would somehow be canceled.

But Charlie Rangel's 80th birthday party and campaign fundraiser in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel went off without a hitch Wednesday night . . . if you don't count the formal ethics charges filed against the 20-term Harlem Democratic congressman last month, his rambling and defiant defense of his conduct on the House floor Tuesday, and the last-hurrah aura to his re-election campaign. Grabbing a microphone at the beginning of the evening and abandoning any pretence of stiff formality despite the lavish setting, Rangel declared, "I've been to a lot of funerals, but this damn sure ain't no funeral, is it?"

From the large "Sold Out" signs outside the Grand Ballroom to the crush of political New York (city council members and U.S. senators, Harlem ministers and Hasidic rabbis, community activists and Wall Street executives) standing shoulder to shoulder for more than two hours, this was an event designed to signal to the world that Rangel still boasted, at least, local clout. Yet there was edginess in the room, partly because the three New York newspapers had spent the week gleefully recounting the evasive answers from political figures about whether they would attend.

Mike Bloomberg — with the bluntness of a three-term billionaire mayor with nothing to lose — said pointedly, "I know a few people couldn't be here tonight because, as they tell it, either they had to get a haircut unexpectedly or they were sure that they'd have a headache. But Charlie, as you know, they were with you as long as they could be."

Bloomberg's mocking words implicitly referred to the unwritten etiquette manual of politics — loyalty and gratitude should trump everything, especially timorous self-interest. As former Republican Sen. Al D'Amato, now a lobbyist, told me as he worked the room before the program started, "Everyone in politics has got to live by their own code. Charlie and I worked together in Washington for 18 years. So I'm here because when people are in trouble, that's when they want to see you."

Throughout the evening, Rangel kept his emotions mostly in check, smiling broadly and giving a thumbs-up sign as Dionne Warwick (substituting for Aretha Franklin, who had been injured in a fall) sang, "That's what friends are for/For good times and bad times/I'll be on your side forever more." But flashes of pain also crossed Rangel's face, particularly when R & B legend Chuck Jackson delivered his mournful and moving rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone." It was hard not to imagine Rangel's anguish over being stripped of the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee as Jackson sang, "Walk on through the wind/Walk on through the rain/Though your dreams be tossed and blown."

With ineffectual lame-duck Gov. David Paterson serving woodenly as the MC — and having to introduce Andrew Cuomo, the man who pushed him aside as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee — moments of political awkwardness were inevitable. At one point, Paterson said ruefully, after being told to juggle the order of speakers to accommodate Sen. Chuck Schumer's schedule, "They're not happy with my work." Most New York voters feel the same way — a statewide Quinnipiac University poll in June gave Paterson a 29-percent approval rating.

The safest political gambit in honoring the beleaguered Rangel was to lavishly praise his prior record and conspicuously ignore the current unpleasantness. Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat last year and facing her first statewide election in November, took this route as she gushed, "Thank you, Charlie, for your service to the country and your service to our wonderful state."

But in light of the ethics charges against Rangel, too much specificity was fraught with irony, if not actual political risk. Schumer, who has served with Rangel in Congress for almost three decades, went out of his way to praise the veteran legislator for his selfless service on the House Ways and Means Committee. Schumer explained that veteran members of the tax-writing committee get to dispense politically useful favors by doing "something for a big shot in their industry or a big power in the industry." But as Schumer's told the crowd at the Plaza, "Year after year Charlie Rangel said, 'Don't do things to benefit me. Just make sure that the low-income housing tax credit gets extended.' "

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There was only one problem with this uplifting story — the ethics committee report outlining the charges against Rangel. The most serious allegation in the report (and Rangel has not yet had a chance to formally respond) is that the veteran congressman solicited donations from corporations and individuals with tax issues before the Ways and Means Committee to establish a Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City University. While the financial benefits to Rangel from this center would be modest (mostly office space after retirement), the lasting benefits for Rangel's ego would be priceless.

Jerry Nadler, whose Manhattan congressional district borders Rangel's, was the only speaker who had the bravery (or foolhardiness) to actually refer to the ethics committee charges. "I read all the report," Nadler said before offering his personal verdict, "If this were a court of law, most of this would be thrown out — it wouldn't stand up." That was enough to prompt loud cheers from the crowd at the Plaza. But what no one seems to have noticed (and after nearly two hours of oratory, few were listening that closely), Nadler dismissed most but not all of the charges against Rangel, implying that some of the accusations have merit.

The newly refurbished Plaza Hotel is a place for Eloise to frolic and revelers to sing "Happy Birthday" along with Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson rather than the setting to solemnly assess the charges against the congressman from Harlem. Before he sent all his well-wishers off to the well-stocked drink carts at the end of the evening, Charlie Rangel said with gratitude in his voice, "Please remember me in your prayers. It really works." But it may take more than just prayer to rescue Rangel -- until recently the most powerful New York legislator in decades — in September when the ethics committee takes up the case.

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Video: Democrats turn out for Rangel's birthday bash

  1. Closed captioning of: Democrats turn out for Rangel's birthday bash

    >> despite the ethics scandal that is surrounding congressman charlie rangel , new york democratic political establishment came out in force last night for his 80th birthday fund-raiser at the plaza hotel . the support from new york highest ranking officials was striking given many of them will thas voters come november. many political heavy-hitters addressed the ethics controversy head-on.

    >> i know a few people couldn't be here tonight because, as they tell it, either they had to get a haircut unexpectedly or they were sure they would have a headache. but charlie , as you know, they were with us as long as they could be.

    >> i want to address the media. we showed up for charlie rangel tonight because charlie rangel always showed up for us. don't turn your cameras off! don't put your notepads down! you have started and executed the political cruisification, but stay tuned for the political resurrection!

    >> if only i had a path. you know, i've been to a lot of funerals where they worked it out, but this damn sure ain't no funeral, is it? all of you have had experiences where you just wish you had a friend or someone to talk with, or someone to be with, and i've been fortunate that i've had my wife and my daughter who not only have stuck with me, but have given me the encouragement and sometimes given me a break by not even talking to me!

    >> how about al? we got to get al sharpton on to talk. is he great?

    >> i love that man.

    >> by the way, that was very touching. i i mean that. that was very touching because usually when something bad goes, everybody scatters. i got great respect for the people that were there. i always liked charlie . he's an american hero . his story in the korean war . he is guilty as hell but it was very moving and i'm dead serious. as guilty as hell. sometimes somebody makes mistakes that happened over 15, 20 years. a blind spot like from the time he was 60 on. but is it not, though, mike, you've seen it and you've seen when someone gets in trouble, the politics, everybody scatters.

    >> in life.

    >> i got respect for the people that showed up but i have respect for charlie 's service, regardless of the fact he is guilty as hell.

    >> i think the funniest line of the past three or four days, i don't know how many of you saw it, mike murphy out in california.

    >> yeah.

    >> described charlie 's speech on the floor of the house , that rambling half hour speech the other day as the equivalent of frank's speech in "godfather 2."

    >> right.

    >> speaking as guilty as hell but people we love, we don't talk about rossy. dan passed away . ethics charges, real problems. you've told me before and everybody that knows dan tells me despite the fact he wasn't innocent of all charges.

    >> no.

    >> a great guy. even republicans that worked with him and he beat up and they loved him. a great guy, dan was.

    >> not only a great guy personally but i think representative of a near in politics when things actually get done that help people. when there was no real deep differences between the two aisles, republican and democrats. when people could come together, despite their party's affiliation to get something done.

    >> he and reagan got together in '82, '83.

    >> absolutely. yeah.

    >> saved social security . he took a hell of a lot of heat for doing that. yeah, he made mistakes. yes, charlie ma made mistakes. we got to remember they helped a heck of a lot of people.

    >> he knew where he was there. he knew why he was in washington to get something done.

    >> he didn't lose touch where he came from. i think that's a problem a lot of people go to washington and all of a sudden they are part of the washington elite. merns after all this happened he grew back in the house he grew up in and he kept touch with the neighborhood and that was sort of the m.o. back then that i think has been lost a lot and why people feel that, what, six or seven people in the feel country feel congress is doing a good job.

    >> i think something about the big city congressman, whether it's rangel or rottenkowski, or o'neill.

    >> by the way, if you're a congressman in the big city , you can disappear a lot more quickly than a congressman in a more rural or suburban area where there is one newspaper covering one congressman and, trust me, i know. they are all over you. you can't read without a headline being written. but charlie , very, very powerful guy. dan was a very powerful guy. that's enough to worry and get anybody nervous. they were similar, though.

    >> you're right, though. a lot of the corruption charges come out of the enter cities inner cities where guys have been able to take short cuts and get away with it.

    >> they are the great deal makers.

    >> exactly. and able to do great things as well. everybody has a blind spot . willie, you and me, it's heroin. but others have -- nay way.

    >> not sure where that came from.

    >> mom, i'm just joking! it's self-deprecating humor at will willie's

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