Sargent Charlie Rangel: American Hero!

Congressman Charlie Rangel

A Decorated Combat Veteran

 A Salute to an Old Soldier Still In the Trenches

Today is the 63ard anniversary of the Truce than ended the bloody Korean War, a conflict that cost more American lives than the Iraq and Afghan wars combined.  Yet it is barely remembered today although we are technically still at war with North Korea, since a peace treaty was never signed.  The truce is merely a cease fire agreement, and the Korean Peninsula is still divided and living under the constant threat of a new outbreak of armed hostilities.  Despite the lack of public recognition for their sacrifices some great men fought in that war and they went to made great contributions to American society when their military service was over.

 In the first rank of these intrepid warriors is  Charles Bernard Rangel, venerable Harlem Congressman, senior member of the New York congressional delegation, and hero to the people of Harlem is also a war hero.  Few people, even in his beloved Harlem, know that Congressman Rangel is a highly decorated combat veteran.  As the bearer of a Bronze Star for valor under fire and a Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained in rescuing forty of his comrades from behind enemy lines, Rangel may well be the most decorated combat veteran in the United States Congress.  He is the antithesis of the verbose Republican chicken hawks who love war so long as the children of the poor fight it – even if they are undocumented.

Yet spending time in Congressman Rangel’s presence one is most impressed with his charm, eloquence and gentile elegance of style and manner.  I have observed him for years, both as a constituent and as a journalist.  And the more I saw of him the better I liked him.  Everyone who is familiar with my work in the New York Press – feature writer and cultural critic at the Village Voice, Editorial Columnist at the New York Daily News, commentator and talk show host at WBAI, Panelist on WCBS television’s Sunday Edition, Contributing Editor at Emerge, a New York based nationally distributed magazine, et al – know that I do not play favorites and spare no one I have reason to believe is abusing their office.  I think creating a free press to oversee the activitivies of those entrusted with the power to govern us is one of the greatest achievements of the architects of the US constitution –a document that also contained some shameful provisions.

Hence I take no prisoners when I catch elected official involved in malfeasance.  In fact, in the 1996 letter nominating me for the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary – which can be read on this blog – I am cited for taking on “demagogues of the left and right both black and white, with equal fervor.”   Yet in all my time in the media Rangel was in the House of Representatives and I never written a single line criticizing Congressman Rangel.  Indeed, I thought him a model public servant.  He is a master of the Washington political game and he always brought home the bacon.

He was everywhere in Harlem, a place he dearly loves, and when he became the first Afro-American Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee he was heralded on the streets by well-wishers with the honorific “Mr. Chairman.”  And he accepts the adulation about as gracefully as anyone I’ve ever seen. Although he has the aristocratic aura of Harlem royalty Rangel grew up in very modest circumstances.  This came as a surprise to me once when I was conducting an interview with him and assuming he came from the same bourgeois background as the former Congressman whom he had replaced, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and he informed me that he had been a gang leader in Harlem as a youth.

To be a gang leader in New York in the 1940’s demanded a lot of courage and cunning.  And these qualities would serve him well in combat.  Hence in one of the most devastating battles of the Korean War, he rose to the occasion and took charge.  Speaking of of Rangel’s censure by the House, after serving 20 outstanding terms where he enjoys the reputation as the most outstanding legislator in the Congress, Republican commentator Ben Stein offered the following explanation of why Rangel remains a great American hero.

In unbelievably difficult service in the Korean War,” says Stein, “his unit was swamped, cut off, overwhelmed by hordes of Red Chinese crossing into Korea. In the worst cold weather imaginable, under fire, starving, acting Sergeant Charles Rangel, in a black unit led mostly by white officers, took a large group of men, led them by example, lifted their morale, as they fought their way out to safety. Men were being shot, freezing, getting captured all around him, yet he got most of his men out…. Now, he has been humiliated over what seems to me like almost nothing… I hope that history will record that a truly great man, Charlie Rangel, a hero of the first rank, was laid low by trivial, no-account matters, censured by people who mostly have no clue of what true courage, fighting, blood and frostbite mean. Charlie Rangel does know, and to me, he is still a hero.” Although I rarely agree with Ben Stein on anything, he is right on the money this time.  Recalling how he was the last man alive on a Korean battlefield, as he heard the voices   of victorious Chinese soldiers walking amongst the American Dead, Sargent Rangel says “I haven’t had a bad day since!”  In fact that’s the name of his Autobiography.  Charlie Rangel is indeed a living American hero, which is why we voted him back in office by a landslide after his censure in a Republican led witch hunt aimed at stripping him of his chairmanship of the all-powerful Ways and Means committee.

For many Harlemites Charlie Rangel is more than a great public servant, although that would be quite enough to inspire a sense of pride and gain our respect; he represents the grandeur of a bygone age when Harlem was the incubator of cultural trends and high style that captured the imagination of the world!   It is no accident that he is the best dressed man in Congress.

At the Tribute for Abiodun
 Abiodun's Tribute 115
Paying homage to the Last Poets
At the Charlie Parker Festival

Congressman charlie Rangel at Bird parker-festival-fine-booties-0441 

As Always: Dressed to the height of fashion!

When the people of Harlem returned Congressman Rangel to the House after his censure I wrote a commentary titled “Charlie’s Victory Comes as No Surprise!’  In this essay I attempted to describe how we feel about Charlie as an exemplar of Harlem’s finest.

“One might well ask,’ how did Mr. Rangel acquire such elegant manners and eloquent speech, and where did get that fine sense of style that has made him the best dressed man in the House Of Representatives.’  I think it all comes from having grown up in Harlem when he did. I have talked to many people who came to Harlem when Rangel  was coming of age, and they all tell me that they didn’t show their faces on Seventh Avenue unless they were dressed to kill. 

Charlie Rangel worked as the night clerk in the Teresa Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, Harlem’s epicenter.  The fact that downtown hotels refused to accommodate black people, whatever their stature, meant that all the beautiful, affluent, famous, black people from everywhere in the world resided there.  Located just around the corner from the legendary Apollo theater, many world famous performing artists made the Teresa their home during their performance tour. 

Thus we know that during the years he was forming his identity as a young man Charlie had a bird’s eye view of the nightly doings of some of the most elegant, stylish and sophisticated people in the world.  These were black people who had succeeded in a wide variety of fields even with all of the racial barriers erected against them.  There can be but little doubt that Rangel found his role models in this fascinating cultural milieu.   Watching him at the recent Charlie Parker Festival in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, he seemed part old school hipster, benevolent potentate, and part wise elder.  But he is, in fact, a very skilled player in the field of politics.   And it is all too obvious that he still loves being the Congressman from Harlem, as his face lights up with an incandescent smile each time he is approached by an admiring constituent.”

We are fortunate indeed to have had such a splendid man representing Harlem…and we may never see his like again.



Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

July 27th, 2O13

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