"And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye NOV 8, 2007)
November 30, 1950, is the last “bad day” alluded to in the title of Charlie Rangel’s memoirs. On that day, 20-year old US Army Pvt. Rangel found himself staring death in the face on a battlefield in what is now North Korea. Fortunately, he got out alive (and was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in connection with his actions that day). And as nothing could possibly be worse than what he faced and escaped that fateful day, that encounter provided him with a perspective on life that has assisted him to get to where he is today, a 37-year veteran of the US House of Representatives whose seniority has landed him in the chainman’s seat of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which writes this nation’s tax laws and makes trade treaties and has jurisdiction over Social Security and other entitlement programs.
Rangel’s story is a remarkable and inspiring one, and one that operates on several levels. First, there is Rangel’s amazing personal story, of how a “fatherless high school dropout with a gift for living by [his] wit” manages to graduate from pushing a hand truck through NYC’s Garment District and complete three degrees (GED, bachelor’s and law) within seven years. Then, during the next ten years, he finds himself admitted to the practice of law, landing his first professional job with then US Attorney Robert Morgenthau, getting elected to the New York State Assembly twice, becoming a close confidant to then Governor Nelson Rockefeller (who, although a Republican, ensured Rangel’s re-election to his second Assembly term with a single phone call), and topping off that decade with succeeding the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as the Congressman representing Harlem, the so-called “capital of black America,” a seat he continues to hold to this day at the age of 77.
Rangel’s memoirs are particularly fascinating also because of the pivotal time he joined the Congress. In 1971, Rangel was one of 13 black congressmen, all Democrats. This group would come together to form the Congressional Black Caucus with the unique mandate to keep the concerns of all black Americans (not just those of the 13 districts represented by these 13 congressmen) in the forefront of the national agenda. The CBC sought to institutionalize the significant gains of the 1960’s civil rights movement. Rangel’s first-hand account of the CBC’s efforts over the years is of great historic importance.
Rangel’s memoirs also provide an interesting account of the inner workings of Congress—and his role within it. He credits his Congressional achievements to his mentor, Tip O’Neill, whom he holds in the greatest esteem. Rangel emphasizes his people skills, which he developed and honed over the years, first as a young man on the streets of Harlem (where he mediated between the rougher youth on his tougher side of 132nd Street and his more genteel Catholic school classmates on the “better” side of 132nd Street), during his hitch in the Army, then during law school, his private law practice, in the political clubs of Harlem, etc. Early on he learned that to get things done, one had to learn how to work with people, bridge factions, even work with those of widely varying viewpoints--like Republicans. Rangel proudly relates how his mastery of the procedural rules of the House permits him to maneuver to his, his party’s and his constituents’ advantage--even when his party is in the minority. In fact, his most significant legislative accomplishments—the amendment of the tax code in 1986 to permit low income housing tax credits (which, in fact, has been the principal vehicle for the production of affordable housing over the past two decades) and the 1987 “Rangel Amendment” to the tax code which imposed significant sanctions on US companies doing business with South Africa—were achieved during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Then, there is Rangel’s account of national and local (i.e., New York City) politics. He has served under seven presidents, starting with Nixon, and has noteworthy comments about several. He also has interesting things to say about local colleagues in Congress, such as Herman Badillo and Bobby Garcia. And he has much to say about both New York City and Harlem politics, about the various mayors during his time, particularly Ed Koch, and fellow Harlem politicians, like Percy Sutton, Basil Patterson and David Dinkins, who along with Rangel are referred to as the “Gang of Four.” Some may find his critique of former NYC governor, Mario Cuomo, unsettling, and many may marvel that he makes only one mention of career Harlem politico Herman “Denny” Farrell, also a Democrat and a contemporary of Rangel’s, but perhaps affiliated with a different club or out of favor with Rangel for some unspoken reason.
There is a most fascinating anecdote recounted by Rangel that epitomizes his appreciation for a pragmatic and non-ideological approach to wheeling and dealing. In 1960, then Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, approached J. Raymond Jones, Harlem’s political leader at the time, who would give Rangel his start in politics. Rayburn said that if Jones would back Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary against JFK, Rayburn would appoint Adam Clayton Powell the chairman of an important House committee. Jones accepted the deal and backed Johnson. Jones thereby bucked conventional wisdom by not backing Kennedy, liberal and pro-civil rights. However, Rangel points out that Jones figured that Kennedy would not be any less pro-civil rights without his support, as most black leaders were already backing Kennedy. Even though LBJ lost the primary, Rayburn made good on his part of the bargain and Powell got his chairmanship. As it turned out, this deal had profound historic significance, as Jones’ seemingly unconventional deal reaped profits no one could have imagined at the time it was made, for after Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ’s ascendancy to the presidency and the conscience of the country open to civil rights legislation, it was Powell and his committee who authored numerous pieces of historic and far-reaching civil rights legislation. (The on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, confirms that Powell’s committee passed a record number of bills for a single session, a record that still stands.) Thus, had Jones been a purist, Powell would not have been in the position to reap the historic benefits which resulted from Jones’ seeming unusual alliance.
Speaking of Powell, Rangel denies that he defeated Powell in 1970. Rather, Rangel says he was really running against an empty seat, as Powell had essentially stopped showing up to work for Harlem and Powell’s hubris did not escape his constituents. Rangel sings Powell’s praises as an early, courageous and effective civil rights leader during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s whose protests and boycotts resulted in integrating the work forces of the stores on 125th Street (Harlem’s “Main Street”) and Con Edison. Rangel argues that these and other accomplishments were unprecedented at the time, should be heralded and not overshadowed by Powell’s later embarrassing personal behavior.
Throughout the book, Rangel sets forth his issues with the current Administration. He opposes the war with Iraq as an unprecedented “preemptive war” against a country that had not attacked us and as improperly justified by lies about the role of Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attack and about weapons of mass destruction. He also criticizes our regressive tax system and states his intention to use his Ways and Means chairmanship to encourage public and private investment in education, health care and job training. In his view, these are not only social issues but also truly national security issues, for with them we are stronger and without them our national security is weakened and put at risk.
A political memoir, such as Rangel’s, represents the author’s account of events as sifted through the his/her filter. There is always a question of credibility and of how much of the author’s account is self-serving spin, in terms of what is included and excluded, and in terms of relating of factual events, the interpretation of those events and the analysis of their significance. All in all, Rangel’s And I Haven’t Had A Bad Day Since does appear to be balanced and modest account of Rangel’s political life. Rangel lays out his positions and the reasons for them. This is not an ideological polemic, and nor is his critiques of Bush strident but rational. Others may not agree with him in whole or part, but no one can honestly accuse him of being irrational or unreasonable.
While this book is said to be written “with Leon Wynter,” a former Wall Street Journal columnist, anyone familiar with Rangel’s voice and his way of expressing himself, hears Rangel throughout the book. Rangel’s confidant, cheerful way of talking is evident on every page. And even if one does not agree with Rangel’s opinions and account of different events, the objective reader will walk away from reading Rangel’s memoir enriched by this witty, jovial and collegial gentleman.
- Amazon readers rating: from 9 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since (April 2007)
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- Official website for the Charles Rangel
- Wikipedia page for Charles Rangel
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About the Author:
Charles Rangel was born in Harlem in New York City in 1930.
He is an 18-term Democratic congressman representing New York’s “Fightin’ 15th” District (incl. Harlem and the Upper West Side). He is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rangel is the principal author of the $5 billion Federal Empowerment Zone demonstration project to revitalize urban neighborhoods across the U.S., and in the 1980s anti-apartheid movement he led the fight in Congress to pressure U.S. corporations to divest from South Africa. He served in the U.S. Army from 1948 to 1952, and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for service in Korea. Rangel is a frequent guest on “Meet the Press” and other TV programs.