Back in 1884, when Republican presidential standard bearer James G. Blaine sat down in New York for dinner with some of the wealthiest and notorious men in America, including financier Jay Gould, the gathering was widely lampooned in the press as a new version of the Book of Daniel’s Belshazzar’s Feast that preceded the fall of Babylon. The point was that the GOP and its cash-and-carry candidate was so blinded by its alliance with plutocrats that they were unable to read the proverbial writing on the wall. Unfortunately for Blaine, there was no latter-day Daniel available to translate that writing for him, and the scandal-plagued candidate became the first Republican to lose a presidential election in 28 years.
Last night, some 126 years after “Belshazzar Blaine” dined his way into the history books, that corrupt feast of the politically blind was replayed in the Big Apple. Except this time it was the Democrats’ assuming the part of the powerful potentates who care nothing about the rapidly approaching day of political judgment. The 80th-birthday party for embattled Rep. Charles Rangel at the Plaza Hotel drew out the high and the mighty of the New York Democratic Party: Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo all showed up to express solidarity for Rangel despite the numerous ethics violations with which he has been charged. A day after Rangel defiantly harangued the House of Representatives, challenging them to expel him for his pay-to-play shenanigans and tax cheating, the paladins of the party of the people were unashamed to associate themselves with the new poster child for congressional corruption.
Indeed, the most telling moment of the evening may have been before the festivities started when, according to the New York Times, former mayor David Dinkins responded to a heckler outside the hotel (who told him, “You know you are attending a party for a crook”) by giving that citizen the finger.
While the usually more dignified Dinkins was the only attendee who seems to have literally flipped the bird at the voters, it is fair to say that his party’s leaders gave the state the moral equivalent of the finger by backing Rangel’s fundraiser. New York Democrats are apparently so confident of their hold on the state’s highest political offices that they were not worried that the three top names on their ballot in November — Cuomo, Schumer, and Gillibrand — were willing to associate themselves with a left-wing scoundrel so foul that even the New York Times has thrown him overboard. In fact, in an editorial today, the Times noted that Rangel has not only been an embarrassment to his party, but that by bringing up the way he had channeled money to fellow Democrats, he also “drew the curtain back on the money machine that so often trumps ethics” in Washington politics.
If the Republican Party in New York were not an empty shell, then perhaps Cuomo, Schumer, and Gillibrand might have thought twice about honoring Rangel just as his dishonor was becoming a matter of public record. But the rest of the country is a different story. Across the Hudson, most people are rightly viewing Rangel as the symbol of what a joke House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s pledge to “drain the GOP swamp” of congressional corruption has become.
As Democrats partied the night away in honor of Charlie last night, it appears they were not interested in hearing any messages from the voters about their coddling of the corrupt. But just as Blaine was, like Belshazzar, “weighed in the balance and found wanting,” Democrats may well look back after November on the night of Rangel’s birthday bash as a date when they refused to read the writing on the wall.