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by Peter Moskos

August 8, 2010

On the night train, with Charles Rangel

It bothers me a bit when people (politicians included) blame politicians and "Washington" for our nation's woes. Or when politicians encourage cynicism and promote the idea that running our country doesn't take any special skill set or intelligence.

Given his troubles, I thought I'd repost an edited version of something I wrote about my chance meeting with Charles Rangel in 2008. I don't like to see the man, after all he's done for New York, being left out in the cold.

Our system ain't perfect, but it's the best we got. And if we throw all the experienced bums out, we'll have mediocre bums leading a mediocre country. Churchill said democracy is the worst system except all other. And I wouldn't swap it for any other system in the world.

In some ways being a politician is like being a cop. It's a dirty world out there and there are a lot of parts that are morally gray. So everybody violates some rules some of the time. And if they want to get you, they can always find a way. I wonder how many of us could live up the ethical regulations we impose on others in the name of "good government"? I doubt I could.
October 12, 2008
I was talking to Charles Rangel last night. On the night train coming back from Boston.

I was in the bar car and heard a strangely familiar gravely voice order a wine. "That must be Charles Rangel," I thought. This guy was shorter than I imagined Rangel to be, but when I saw an official looking Congressional Lapel Pin, I knew for sure.

I was kind of caught off guard and told him to keep up his good work. He thanks me and squeezed my shoulder and left. Back in my seat, drinking my Budweiser, I thought, "Man, I handled that poorly. First of all, I should bought him his wine. Second, why didn't I tell him that I was my father’s son? They kind of knew each other and were sort of buddies... or at least that was my father's version of the story.

But in this case I got a second chance. I went up for beer number two and started talking with the cafe guy. We shot the shit about North and South, white and black, and corporal punishment (He was from Virginia, black, and pro). Anyway, it was a quiet train and we were chatting for about 20 minutes.

Then Rangel returns, a bit disheveled. He orders a cheeseburger and goes to the bathroom. I notice the cafe guy goes through the motions but doesn't actually pop the bag on the cheeseburger and put it in the microwave until Rangel comes out of the bathroom and comes back for his order. He has no idea who this is, I think.

While Rangel is waiting, I tell him he knows my father, Charles Moskos.

"The draftee!" He explains in his trademark voice. "We were both draftees. That's the point, the poor shouldn't be the only ones to serve." Rangel once told my father that if it weren't for the army (and a Greek sergeant in particular), he'd be a bum.

I told Rangel my father had died recently, which he didn't know. "He was young," he said, "at least younger than me!" "I know," I said with a grimace and a reassuring pat on his arm.

The cafe guy asked Rangel if he wanted anything to drink. He said a Pepsi and gave the guy his money. "Let me get that for you," I said! "No, no, that's not necessary," he said.

I insisted, in part because I knew my father would have loved any story that involved me paying for the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's cheeseburger.

So there we are, Charles Rangel and Peter Moskos, each trying to get the cafe man to take our money. But because the cafe man knew me and not Charles Rangel, he took my money. Rangel thanked me, said a few nice things about my father, and returned to his seat.

Here is one of the most powerful men in America. Taking the night train. Tired. No entourage. Willing to talk.

At Penn Station I watched Rangel get off the train. There he was, gentleman, congressman, 78-years-old, draftee, carrying his own bags. I offered to carry them for him. But he politely declined. I figure in this day and age you could get in trouble for grabbing a congressman's suitcase, so all I could do was offer again. He declined again. We went up the escalator and said goodbye. There he went, Charles Rangel, walking off alone into the night at 3am.

It made me proud to be an American.


Dana King said...

Thanks for sharing that; it's good to see anything that humanizes a member of Congress. It's too easy to think of them as suits that get wheeled out at the media's request and forget there are people inside those suits.

Rangel's done a lot of good, and I've had a soft spot for him, though I've never lived in New York. I'm not going to speculate whether he's getting a raw deal or not; I lack adequate information to make such a judgment. Still, there comes a time when you have to cut the best deal you can and take one for the team. Democrats have made hay in recent years over Republican ethical issues that became newsworthy right before an election. Rangel has to know he and Maxine Waters are becoming poster children for Republican campaigns, and they can't let that happen. It's may not be fair, but that's how it goes sometimes.

IrishPirate said...


Interesting story on a former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee who had his own scandal.

Power and time can corrupt almost anyone at least in small ways. People are complicated critters and can do good and bad within mere moments,

He should resign for the good of the Democratic Party.

Unfortunately, the Grand Old Party Republicans have mostly lost their bearings. The few sane Republicans who remain, are being shouted down by the Palinistas and the rest of the "know nothings".

Somewhere the Barry Goldwater of his later years is crying.