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posted: 3/7/2010 12:01 AM

Disappointment watching fall of a no-pretense guy

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This is not the way Sandy Levin would have wanted it.

The Michigan Democrat became acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after its former chairman, Charlie Rangel of New York, stepped down - temporarily, he says - because he was censured by the House ethics committee for going on a corporate-financed junket.

The same committee has been examining many other, more serious charges against the Harlem congressman - relating to disclosure of outside income and properties, solicitation of charitable contributions and other matters.

It seems doubtful from what has been reported that Rangel will be able to resume control of the powerful committee that handles taxes, trade and big chunks of health care.

But his decision to ask for leave from the chairmanship is a matter of regret to many - not least, Sandy Levin. Rangel and Levin have been committee colleagues and friends for decades. I have known Levin since he was a Democratic chairman in Oakland County, Mich. There's not a jealous bone in Levin's body and he never would have thought of rising at the expense of Rangel.

When I think about Rangel, my reflections turn to the early autumn of 1996. Watching Bill Clinton's re-election bid against Bob Dole unfold that year, it occurred to me that it was possible the Democrats might regain the congressional majority they had lost in 1994. I was wrong.

But I decided to write a piece for The Washington Post on what might be in the offing, so I interviewed the ranking Democrats on key congressional committees, including Rangel of Ways and Means.

Earlier in that year, he had led a last-ditch fight against the welfare reform bill that was one of the notable battles of the new Republican Congress. President Clinton vetoed two versions, then in 1996 negotiated a deal with Republicans and signed the third one, ending the guarantee of federal stipends for very-low-income women with children.

Rangel fought it every inch of the way - even when a Democratic president capitulated. He was particularly aggrieved that New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, came to Washington to lobby for the bill.

So when he had run through his list of bills that he would try to pass if the Democrats regained the majority, I said, "I'm surprised you didn't mention welfare. I would have thought you'd want to undo the bill they passed this year."

"Not me," he said, with that mischievous grin that colleagues and reporters came to know so well. "I'll wait until the next recession, when those governors are crying for help with the people who lost their welfare checks. I want to see Pataki down on his knees, begging me to fix it."

That was Rangel - brushing past all the congressional protocol and double-talk and making it clear that his high-principled policy views live comfortably with a completely human passion to settle personal scores.

This was a no-pretense guy who, like other military veterans in politics, had lived through much worse than his opponents could ever throw at him. Rangel's ordeal came in the retreat from North Korea, and he was liberated by surviving the experience.

When he came home, he had the guts to take out the redoubtable - and crooked - Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. And he had the guts to tell Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Arkansas addresses, she could become the senator from New York - and he would help.

I hate seeing him fall.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group