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.' "
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.