Q&A: Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y.

The Democratic Congressman representing the 15th district of New York on how to save the middle class.

Mother Jones: Of all the things the Bush administration leaves behind, what will be the hardest one to fix?

Rep. Charles Rangel: The war the war the war the war the war, the tragic war, the loss of life, loss of limbs, the loss of hope, the breakup of families. The loss of credibility throughout the world. The fact that you can never put lives back together again. There's no question that that's the most despicable thing that has happened in this country, after lynchings and slavery.

MJ: How does the next president go about this fix?

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CR: Admitting that there's been a mistake, reaching out to the free world, our friends, our allies, and certainly putting more demands on our so-called Arab leaders that seem to be holding our coats as we fight a war that is based on religious and cultural differences. We haven't the slightest clue on how to bring about a resolution.

MJ: The easiest thing to fix?

CR: Racial reconciliation. Which is a very serious problem in this country.

MJ: How to go about fixing it?

CR: Having a concentration on the problems and the solution, and not concentration on one's complexion.

MJ: What is the most urgent fix?

CR: The war. The war. The war. The war. The war.

MJ: Given your experience in federal politics, what is a piece of advice you'd offer the next president?

CR: I don't think Obama needs any advice from someone like me, but I am starting to reach across the aisle, talking with Republicans, and I would hope he would be doing the same thing. Recognizing that our economy is shattered, we have a health system bursting at the seams, we have no funds in the Social Security system, the economy in recession, the school system is in a failure. Most of all of these problems don't lend themselves to a Democratic solution but rather a bipartisan approach to them. Especially reforming the tax system in a more equitable, a more economic and productive way. I would hope that he would encourage us in the Congress, as I am doing in the ways and means committee, to sit down and see whether we can work together and move forward together so that when he is sworn in he doesn't have to set up any investigative committees but can hit the ground running with legislation.

MJ: What if it's McCain?

CR: I won't be here. I'll be pulling out my passport preparing to go abroad. So I won't have to deal with McCain. I am just out of here. I am 78 years old; I could not possibly take four more years of Bush/McCain.

MJ: Would you say there's irreparable damage caused by any Bush policy?

CR: The torture of detainees and the manner in which we invaded Iraq, those things will never go away. As a country, no matter what we do, to have that light in the beacon of freedom and justice, it will forever be dimmed by the way we conducted this war and how we treated people.

MJ: What lasting legacy of the Bush administration will we still be feeling 50 years from now?

CR: Well, I hope it's not the economy. We don't know how long it's gonna take to pull out of this deficit. We really don't know, we really don't know the negative impact of the squeezing of the middle class. You just don't become middle class overnight. If your kids have to be pulled out of school, if you lost your house, if you lost your job, if you lost your dignity it takes years if you do recover. And sometimes the recovery has to be from the next generation. So, repairing social security and Medicare and getting out of this war, and getting and education that works, as well as the infrastructure. Those problems are going to be around for a while.

MJ: What lessons about leadership should the next president glean from the past eight years? What are the dos and don'ts?

CR: I couldn't answer that question because it assumes that there is leadership in the White House. But if you read the books and listen to the interviews of those people that surrounded Bush when he made the decision to find reasons to invade Iraq, you don't call that leadership. I would think honesty in government is what we'd be hoping to find in the next president. One of the biggest problems that Congress and history may have to face is why we didn't take up the Kucinich motion to impeach. Even though I believe there are sound political reasons not to do this at this time, I don't know how historians are going to treat us. So to me, it's not what lessons do you learn from the Bush administration; they stole our country and held our Constitution hostage.

MJ: Have we lowered our standards, then, for the Oval Office?

CR: Of course we set our standards low. Anytime someone like McCain who's a nice man gets the nomination, clearly you can see they are not looking for any damn Abe Lincoln. But on the Dem side we are indeed fortunate that we had at least two strong candidates. No matter who gets to the White House would raise the standards of what is perceived in terms of morality and justice and fair play and peace. The fact that we have had such low expectations and the president's poll numbers are so low to me has nothing to do with how we have expectations in the Dem party. Even congressionally Republican members of the House are dropping out all over. In New York City we couldn't find a Republican to run in one district. There are no standards; it's just a sense of despair. But that doesn't stop Democrats from looking for the best we can to run for office, and to run for president.

MJ: You've been in Congress for more than 35 years now, through several administrations, Republican and Democrat. Where does the Bush administration stand, relatively, in your book?

CR: Well I wish I had been here a lot longer but. In the 38 years I've been in Congress and in the history I've read the presidencies I really, I don't think that Bush even reaches the radar screen in being compared to the worst presidents we've had. It is sad bc he is a very personable man. The past seven years have been a nightmare. People dying, being killed. We are losing most precious gift we have as a country and that is the spirit of the middle class. The hopes and dreams of so many who have come to this country and those who have strived to get into the middle class and now bc of food prices and oil and an inequitable tax system people are losing their home their hope their jobs, their kids tuition. When a country loses that, not withstanding its deficit, it loses its heart. And that is why Obama's job is going to be the most difficult in recent years.

MJ: Despite all this you still have faith in the process?

CR: There is absolutely no one who comes near us in terms of resolving these types of problems and moving forward. No country comes closer to having the ability to adjust and move forward. We are just different kind of people. Even during better times we had racism and riots and discrimination, but there was still no question we could overcome, and now we have an African American who will probably be our next president. We can do anything, but it's gonna be rough.