Censure briefly forgotten as House leaders honor Rep. Charles Rangel

House leaders honored Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y) with an official Capitol portrait Thursday, sweeping aside two years of scandal and a formal rebuke to recognize a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a congressional pioneer.

As a packed committee room full of hometown supporters and congressional allies serenaded Rangel with chants of “Charlie, Charlie,” it seemed as though the ethical firestorm that led to a House censure had been briefly forgotten.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lauded his “long and highly decorated service,” joking that the two men were “in some ways cut from the same cloth” because they shared “a particular concern about our appearance.” Boehner, who pushed for Rangel to resign as the first African-American chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, described him as a friend and said that despite their differences, they spoke nearly every day on the House floor.

The second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who voted to censure Rangel on the House floor, hailed him as a hero for his service in the Korean War and said it had been a privilege and an honor to serve with him.

After earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Korea, Rangel returned to New York and entered politics. He challenged longtime Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in 1970 and has served in the House ever since. A liberal stalwart, he rose to lead the Congressional Black Caucus and in 2007, he became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee when Democrats won the House majority.

By 2008, reports surfaced that Rangel had not paid taxes on a villa he owned in the Dominican Republic and that he had used official congressional stationery to raise money for an education center name in his honor in New York.

He relinquished his chairmanship in March 2010, under pressure from leaders of both parties.

The unveiling of Rangel’s portrait came nine months after his moment of humiliation, when a vote of his colleagues forced him to stand in the well of the House in formal rebuke for violations that included unpaid taxes to improper use of his office for fund-raising.

The speakers who celebrated Rangel’s career on Thursday never directly mentioned the ethics cloud, focusing on his 40-year House career while praising his “indomitable” fighting spirit.

“This is a man who had the personality of a basketball. Anytime he hit the floor, he bounced back up,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

It was left to Rangel, ever known for his candor, to bring up the elephant in the room.

“Anybody that wants to ask about the Ethics Committee, I’m not answering any questions,” Rangel quipped.

For most of the hour-long ceremony, Rangel, 81, sat beaming as a parade of congressional colleagues lauded his service and, in particular, his dedication to fighting for the poor. The portrait was painted by Simmie Knox, who painted the official White House portraits of President Clinton and then-first Lady hillary Clinton.

It shows a smiling Rangel dressed in a dark suit and red tie, holding the Ways and Means gavel. To his right are the American flag and a display of the seven service medals he was awarded in Korea.

When it was his turn to speak, Rangel offered a long list of thank-yous and bemoaned what he described as a dearth of “reason” in modern politics and campaigns. He paid tribute to a country that had allowed him to rise so high and achieve so much.

“We know there’s a lot of hypocrisy involved, and we know there’s a lot of racism involved, but we also know that there’s no country in the whole world that is as good to all people as the United States of America,” Rangel said.

“My life is a story that anyone can make it — from a high school dropout to having been chair of this great committee.”