A congressman tells his rags-to-riches tale

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has one of the most famous voices in Congress. But you wouldn’t guess where he got the accent: During his youth, in the 1930s, he lived with his uncle in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx.

This is one of the many amusing anecdotes related in the earthy And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since, Rangel’s memoir on his life and times in New York and Washington, where he has served Harlem for nearly 40 years.

Rangel can boast of an incredible rags-to-riches story, and he pulls few punches about his upbringing. To start with, his father was “absolutely no good.” Rangel writes that he hated him ever since he was 5 or 6 years old, and once had to grab a broom to stop his father from beating his mother.

Uncle Herbert, the relative Rangel lived with in the Bronx, was better but had problems of his own. He had a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality whenever he got drunk, which was every weekend. “He’d whip my ass on the weekends just to be whipping my ass,” writes Rangel, adding that his uncle would be ashamed of himself by Monday.

And then there was Rangel’s grandfather, a seminal influence in Rangel’s life. Although he could never tell his grandson he loved him, he motivated Rangel to pursue a legal career, which led to a life in politics.

All of these anecdotes are delivered in Rangel’s distinctive voice, which in the writing you can almost hear. The book has the feel of an oral history, with Rangel telling stories across the table about his family and a New York City political machine driven by ethnic and racial politics.

The biggest problem with the book is that it feels a bit rushed, and not all of the stories are told in depth. Rangel also tends to repeat himself. That would be fine if Rangel were telling you the tales in person, but it becomes irritating in print. The narrative would be better served with deeper reflections on the people and times Rangel has seen.

For example, some readers might want to hear more about Rangel’s wartime service in Korea and his epic challenge of legendary Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.), the only other man to represent Harlem in the U.S. Congress. Instead, he devotes much space to repeated explanations for why the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Rangel could have offered more in the way of observations and stories about his long legislative career. Rangel reaches the House about halfway through the book, leaving less time to discuss the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus or Rangel’s thoughts on House personalities like former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), a friend and mentor, and ex-Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who was sometimes an impediment.

 That said, I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since rewards the reader with behind-the-scenes stories about Rangel’s recruitment of Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for a New York Senate seat; Rangel’s cooperative relationship with then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R); and the political threats he made to former AFL-CIO President George Meany in the 1970s.

The stories also provide context for understanding a politician who is more complex than some would assume. In particular, they explain Rangel’s political passions, including his deeply held conviction that the war in Iraq would never have been launched if there were still a military draft.

More than anything, the book presents Rangel as a politician eager to use his newfound influence as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. As he writes, Hurricane Katrina became an “unnatural national tragedy” partly because under-funded Louisiana schools left thousands of poor Americans isolated and unable to rise through the ranks of the job market; as a result, they were the most vulnerable when the storm wiped out their neighborhoods and their livelihood.

Taking that lesson to heart, Rangel now wants the corporate chiefs who seek to curry his favor for tax breaks to take up the call to improve America’s schools and bring about social equality.