Rangel & Harlem Nights



On safari in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro volcanic crater, which had become a wildlife refuge famous for its big cats, I spied an elderly lion, its full mane pockmarked with white streaks, sitting placidly along an animal path which led from a watering hole to the epicenter of the crater.  No pride surrounded him, as he gazed at a nearby hillock, atop which sat a new king of the beasts, attended by young males and females who sat at various level below him, exemplifying their varying social strata.  When the females bagged a gazelle, zebra or water buffalo for the evening meal, the new king ate his fill, then the remainder of the pride, and finally the aging former ruler.

Looking at a photo I took of those lions, especially the deposed king, I thought of Charlie Rangel.

To be sure, he was at the White House for the signing of the new health legislation, a cause he championed for many years, but, now he was on the fringe of the group, cut out of many cropped photographs, no longer the powerful chairman of Ways and Means.  The conventional Washington wisdom is that, even if the eventual final decision of the Ethics committee does not damage him further, Charlie will never regain the chair which he pursued for 30 years.

I’ve known Charlie for more than 40 years, when he first represented Harlem in the New York State Assembly, and I was Director of Information.

I don’t pardon his alleged ethics transgressions, because it is not my place to sit in judgment.  Nor do I offer an excuse for his alleged violations  .  But, maybe some insight will be useful to readers as I recall the times in which we lived.

When Charlie defeated Adam Clayton Powell, whose transgressions helped defeat him, New York and Washington politics had a different set of mores.  A great many Senators and Congressmen took hunting, fishing and other trips with lobbyists, joined them at fancy watering holes, enjoyed fine dining at their expense, etc.  Charlie Wilson was a larger than life example of the mores of the time.  Not infrequently, State Department officials were invited to these soirees, on the Hill, at hotels, in Embassies.  Did not know who, if other than the nominal hosts, paid, but we were not approached by lobbyists, rather we courted the Members, and vice versa.  A fine looking blonde who lived in the apartment next to my future wife was the “celebrity escort” retained by a major national organization. A major defense contractor offered you a choice of “honeys” when you visited their plants.  Well-fueled lobbying and entertaining still occur – this is a company town powered by credit cards – it’s just less obvious.

My direct contacts with Charlie occurred after I became a special assistant for narcotics.  New York had its infamous civil commitment program under which narcotics addicts could be “sentenced” to Arthur Kill or other so-called treatment centers – sometimes for commitments  longer than the sentences they would have served for the crimes they committed.  New York City had its own program, a loosely regulated amalgam of city-run facilities but the city primarily relied on independent treatment centers.  The real action was in the storefront crash pads and these treatment centers. The State needed its own program – and it became my responsibility.  The Governor decided one official should decide which programs received money – and politically, which counties got money through their mental health programs.

Dealing with the 62 upstate counties was a chore at first, until the Governor let it be known that the penalty for non-cooperation was a loss in State aid.  The New York Times later said the program succeeded in providing treatment capacity in every county because I bought every program – or coerced them with the threat of a loss in aid.  Sure, there were some rough spots; you took the program’s money, you complied with its regulations.  The Commissioner of Mental Health in Westchester, the Governor’s home county, rose at a town hall meeting (Rocky loved those) and said Rayburn Hesse is an arrogant son of a bitch.  To which, NAR replied, “Rayburn is not arrogant.”  Laughter.

But, upstate was a walk in the park compared to New York City.  Even the Mayor of New York did not know how much money his addiction agency was providing to the treatment centers, who wanted some of the State money but not State health regulations.  I met with 13 center directors, told them we had enough money for 12, and for them to let me know which center would be closed.  All 13 signed up.

The major hurdle was Harlem – run then and now by the Gang of Four, more powerful today than when I was there and they were just building their political power base.  Charlie, Basil Patterson, David Dinkins, Percy Sutton, all powers in Albany, who strove to provide jobs and services to Harlem – and succeeded.  Hillary Clinton would not have been elected Senator without them.

I had a very cool reception in Harlem, so I went to Charlie’s district office and asked for help.  To do anything in New York, you need a rabbi.  Had a couple of Jewish members of the Assembly helping downtown.  I was directed to meet with Queen Mother Moore.  What program does she run?  None.  Why is she important?  Because the community respects her, and you need to show her some respect; she was helping addicts long before you came on the scene.  So, I met with this very gracious, very elderly lady and got her blessing.  The term “community” has a special meaning in black America.

Still there was the problem of going to these drug centers which meant traversing the streets of Harlem at night.  Years later, I was at a meeting with Charlie and Congressman Ed Townes, a former cop, and I bragged a bit about how I had braved Harlem.  Charlie just laughed, “Tell him, Ed.”  Seems the word came down from Albany; the special assistant for narcotics would be developing programs in Harlem, “make sure no one blows his damned head off.”  We had plain clothes people looking out for that big Oldsmobile 98 with the State shield on the bumper, Ed informed me.  (There was reason to worry; during the 1995 Harlem riots, rooftop snipers did shoot at the press.)

I was not so well treated by some other elements of NYPD.  The Governor was incensed to learn that NY and federal narcs were using “Georgia search warrants”.  One cop would go to the back of the house, or down the hall in an apartment building, the cop at the front door would knock, and the guy outback would yell, “Come in” and under NY law of the time that was sufficient permission to enter, search and sieze.  Well some walls were knocked down, yards torn up, etc.  So, someone had the bright idea that a civilian should accompany a raid.  Against the wishes of NYPD, DEA and NYS BCI, I and a little man who was the narcotic commission attorney, joined a swarm of narcs assembled in a Queens brownstone.  The call came, the raid was on, and everybody dashed down to their cars, and sped away.  All but one.  The attorney expressed disbelief; he couldn’t believe that a thief had heisted a car bearing a NYS shield.  Wasn’t a thief, I said, and hailed a cab to take me to the NYPD impoundment lot.  A lieutenant came forward to greet me, “Mr Hesse, we were told your car was stolen; luckily, a cruiser spotted it and we brought it in.”  I replied, “Tell George I got the message.”  George was the BCI chief narc.

The government “got the message” on other notable occasions.  The psychiatrists in the Narcotic Commission became enamored of the “isolated environment technique” wherein numbers of addicts would be removed from their drug-infested neighborhoods in Harlem, Bed Sty, Jackson Heights, and rehabilitated somewhere upstate.  I eventually found a former boarding school, complete with dorms, classrooms, gyms, etc up in the Finger Lakes, and arranged to meet with the broker.  The price was right, but before we could shake hands, the County Commissioner arrived, the local Assemblyman in tow.  They informed the realtor that the Narcotic Commission intended to house up to 100 male addicts, all young, mostly Black and Hispanic.  The property was taken off the market. 

At that time, 90% of the males in some of those minority neighborhoods were addicts.  The political heat followed the realization that some of the addicts in these shooting galleries were young white kids, some of whom overdosed and died with the needles still in their arms.  I told Charlie about a 15-year old blonde from Connecticut, found dead under a Harlem stairwell.  After viewing the body and talking to the ME, I encountered the father who wanted to know why the program had not prevented her death.  As much as I sympathized with the man, it was time for truth: his daughter had been selling herself in Harlem for weeks to support her habit; how did they not know where she was?

While I was an author of the 1972 Narcotics and Drugs Treatment Act, which greatly expanded the scope of federally-funded treatment centers, and President Nixon gave me a pen used to sign PL 92-255 into law, Charlie gave the concept a great boost.  He invited Senator Jacob Javits, a somewhat patrician US Senator known to some as “Jake the Fake,” to come to Harlem.  Charlie and others took the Senator to a notorious Harlem shooting gallery.  For Javits, it was the political equivalent of dipping in the River Jordan.

The new national program run by the new Office for Drug Policy meant well but the people who ran it had no familiarity with Harlem.  Methadone was all the rage but ODCP decided they needed a way to ensure addicts did not receive more than their daily dose of methadone.  Fingerprints were discussed, and discarded to the relief of the FBI.  Instead, they conceived the “shoebox.”  In theory, an addict would place a bare foot in the box, filled with liquid, then stamp his footprint on a felt pad (a footprint is as unique as a fingerprint).  I told Charlie what was planned; he roared and gave me a message to deliver at the next meeting in the White House annex.  “I want to be there when one of you young bureaucrats stops a really strung out, meaner than a gut-shot grizzly black addict, and tell him to put his foot in that box.”  I was blamed for leaking to the press.  Needless to say, this really bad idea was never implemented.

The image of that dead girl haunted me.  One night, I received a call from a NY narc; they had picked up a white teenager, OD on meth, and worried that if they put him in the tank with all the addicts downtown in the Tombs or at Rikers, he would be “married” five times before dinner. The NYPD could book him on possession, but he had not committed any other crime.  Then, the narc said that I knew the boy’s father.  Indeed, a man who was a high-ranking Democrat, a persistent critic of the Governor, and had even picked on me by name.  I did two things; I called a man who drove for me and told him to go to the precinct and declare we would take the boy to a detox center; then, I called the Governor’s chief of staff, who knew well I did not agree with the State’s civil commitment program for people who possessed drugs for their own use, when treatment was a more promising option.  I laid out a plan to fly below the radar; he agreed and said he would inform the Governor.  I arranged for the boy to be taken to a detox center in the Bronx, the director needed some diplomatic persuading about the records, then he would be transferred to a State mental health facility, under a John Doe.  Again, a director had to be reminded diplomatically he was a State employee, and that his program received substantial drug treatment funding.  The next day I received a telephone call from this nationally-known Democrat; his first reaction was to ask what political price he would have to pay; none.  Given his personal criticism of the Governor and me, he wanted to know why I took these actions.  Not a political favor; has nothing to do with you, I said.  I am just tired of seeing young kids die. The face of that young blonde seared my focus. Charlie and others heard that a political favor had been done for some unnamed Democrat; I told him that was not accurate, I did it to square an account.  To this day, I’ve never disclosed the name.  (One of two names I will take with me to the grave)

Regardless of the public perception, and Jay Epstein’s book, Rockefeller did not play politics with the drug program.  We had a golden opportunity to put Mayor John Lindsay in the tank; his health inspectors closed the only independent treatment center in NYC that focused on 15U addicts – at that age, they could not be admitted to State or City programs because of health regulations.  I got a call from the politically well-connected director of the program, who also called the Governor’s chief of staff and his counsel, shrieking at the top of her voice that 65 sub-teens were being put out on the street.  One option was to leave them on the street and humiliate Lindsay; the other option was to put them under State-care.  The State health commissioner and mental health commissioner said they could not be party to breaking the law on institutional care of subteens.  However, the narcotic commission attorney said we were not strictly bound by the laws on treating sub-teens.  So, back to the Health commissioner; want to buy one of your hospitals!  Over the next few hours, food, beds, etc were “commissioned” from other treatment centers and these kids were fed, housed and treated.  The Governor’s office decided not to reap the publicity it could have, but there was one repercussion.  Early the next morning, I was summoned to the office of the Attorney General, who waved wads of paper at me while he screamed at me for not involving his attorneys.  My experience with his attorneys was usually negative so I didn’t call.  Louis Lefkowitz screamed, “You and your schemes.  As best we can figure out what happened last night, you personally own a hospital.” As calmly as I could, I advised the AG I would gladly sell it to the State for one dollar.  (I thought of asking for more but the consequences would have been a death-knell for my career.)

One night in Jamaica, I recounted the story, Charlie telling people at this cocktail party that I once owned a NY hospital.  At this time, Charlie was chairman of a House Special Committee on Narcotics and Drug Abuse, which did a great deal of public good, through its hearings, through its corralling the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, and his investigative trips to narcotics producing countries like Jamaica, which produced the most potent ganja.  During the course of the party, at which the booze flowed faster than the Mississippi, it was readily apparent that the Ambassador’s wife – a great beast of a woman – was seven sheets to the wind.  Before breaking up, the Ambassador, a very tall gent, wanted a picture taken.  His yard had a terrace overlooking some hedges, but no railing.  Charlie, his wife Alma, the hosts, and a couple of Congressmen all stood, arms locked together, on a railroad tie at the edge of the terrace.  The Ambassadors wife started swaying like a palm tree in a gale, and fell backward, taking the ensemble with her.  The embassy press aide did his bit, yelling “no pictures, no pictures.”  Poor Alma was trapped under the wife of the Ambassador who would have dressed out at 175 pounds; Alma yelled, “get her off me” and someone yelled “get a crane.”  Helluva party.

The delegation flew out of Kingston, to Montego Bay, and then a few of us were invited to a private party at an estate, actually, an enclave of estates called Wyral.  The kind of place God would live if He had money.  The house where the party was held had been owned once by Texas Governor John Connolly; the oilman’s manse had seven bedrooms, each with private bath, and all the drapes, slip covers, bed coverings and towels were color-coordinated. Charlie had no doubt why this party – food and drink for a king – and some very comely hostesses – was being held.  He instinctively knew it had something to do with Ways and Means, not the narcotics committee, two other Congressmen there were also on Ways and Means.  The answer arrived by helicopter, in the person of the Prime Minister.  He wanted renewal of an agreement on bauxite.  And, he needed recertification by the State Department that Jamaica was cooperating on narcotics – which was not assured.  I had guessed my role at the party when this young thing, with cleavage that would make a monk question his vows, asked me when the narcotics report would go to the Secretary of State.  I had not yet written it, but a position on Jamaica had been agreed.  If Jamaica did not begin eradication, it would not be recertified.  I conveyed that message to the PM; a week later, the Assistant Secretary of State and I were invited to a private meeting in the Mayflower, at which the PM announced his new eradication policy.

Over the years, I met with Charlie many times – in his office, in hearings, dinner in his home, in foreign countries.  Charlie was one of the few on the Hill we could trust with classified information, but even that had limits.  Once in Bogota, when we were leaving a briefing by CIA and DEA, Charlie told Ambassador Tambs that he always had the feeling after such briefings that I knew more than he had been told.  Tambs replied, “Rayburn gets paid to know more than you do.”  From time to time, classified matters could be a source of tension between us, and he suspected that Dante Fascell, chairman of Foreign Affairs, was privy to more secrets, but in 20 years, I never knew Charlie to go off the reservation – unlike many Members of Congress who cannot keep a secret, especially when disclosure works to their advantage with the press.

When the Republicans regained control of the House, the funding for Charlie’s drug control committee was cut.  We lost an important platform.

Whatever the future holds for Charlie, I will value him for keeping the drug control issue on the front burner, and always being open to new program initiatives.  RFH

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