WASHINGTON-Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem isn’t shy about reminding a listener that he played a big role in making Hillary Clinton a U.S. Senator from New York three years ago. Now, however, he’s talking about his next project: making Wesley Clark President of the United States.
“Even before he declared his candidacy, I used to tell people, ‘Think about General Clark,'” Mr. Rangel said in an interview with The Observer . “They’d say, ‘What does that mean?’ And I’d say, ‘You just trust me, because it wasn’t that long ago I told you to think about Hillary Clinton.'”
Mr. Rangel, dean of the New York Congressional delegation and arguably the nation’s most important African-American elected official, is supporting the retired general despite ties to a number of the other candidates-like Richard Gephardt, his longtime House colleague, or fellow Harlemite Al Sharpton. And there’s nothing low-key or apologetic about that support.
Sitting in his spacious Congressional office on Capitol Hill, Mr. Rangel laid out his reasoning for backing Mr. Clark’s candidacy. It was, he explained, a pragmatic decision.
“Listen, I don’t want to get out there with a loser,” he said. “I mean, if there’s a wart on Clark that I’m not seeing, tell me about it. People say he’s not liked by generals, he’s too articulate, he’s too ambitious, too political. Hell, that all enhances him. He looks good, he sounds good, but more importantly, he takes the question of patriotism off the table.”
Mr. Rangel, himself a decorated war veteran, says he was initially attracted to the general because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. And he says that his confidence in Mr. Clark was strengthened during subsequent conversations with his colleagues-including one with Hillary Clinton, who was particularly enthusiastic about the general from Arkansas.
“I talked to Hillary and I said, ‘Holy mackerel!'” he said. According to Mr. Rangel, the Senator said of Mr. Clark: “He’s smart, he’s sharp-Bill and I love him. We go back to Little Rock. We’ve been supportive-he’s a great man.”
At the end of the conversation, according to Mr. Rangel, the Senator said: “Charlie, I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m not endorsing anyone and that I can’t endorse anyone.”
Mr. Rangel replied: “Look, Senator, if at some point in my political career I ask you for some endorsement and you can’t see your way clear to giving it, then just give to me what you just gave to Clark.” The Congressman added that he was “overwhelmed” by the Senator’s non-endorsement. “Because I didn’t know he was that good-I just thought he could win,” he said.
Correctly anticipating a follow-up question on the much-speculated-about topic of collusion between Ms. Clinton and the Clark camp-some have suggested that the general is a stalking horse for the Senator-Mr. Rangel dismissed it all as “crazy conspiracy theories.”
A Key Ally
Although few political endorsements are decisive in Presidential campaigns, Mr. Rangel’s could be particularly important to Mr. Clark. For starters, Mr. Rangel says, he has already begun to organize some of his House colleagues for Mr. Clark, putting them to work on the general’s behalf to provide his campaign with some of the organizational support that it currently lacks.
More importantly, Mr. Rangel sees himself in a position to sell Mr. Clark to black voters. “Rangel’s is an extraordinarily powerful endorsement,” said Democratic consultant Josh Isay. “He’s got tremendous credibility in the African-American community, and he’s seen by insiders as a political mastermind.”
But there is no guarantee that Mr. Rangel’s help will translate into minority support. To this point, there has been no firm sign that black voters are rallying in significant numbers to any one candidate.
Asked why he thought that the African-American community would support a white military man, Mr. Rangel laughed.
“The real assurances that I have to give my people is that he can whup Bush’s ass,” he said. “That’s the first thing that I have to deal with-that he can win this damn thing. That’s before they can even get into the whole civil-rights struggle-that we can get in there and whup this man and make up for all of the things that happened in Florida and the United States Supreme Court, and all of the injustices that this man has caused them since he’s been in office. That’s the goal and the battle plan.”
Asked whether Mr. Clark’s past support for Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon might be a problem for Democrats, Mr. Rangel argued that it wouldn’t. “A reporter once told me, ‘Well, a guy who went to school with Clark in Little Rock said that he supported segregated schools,'” Mr. Rangel said, breaking into a wide grin. “So I said, ‘Well, can you imagine what a great President he would be to show that type of growth?’ I mean, damn-to a guy who now supports affirmative action in the military and in the [University of] Michigan case. Now that’s a true American-not just a guy who was born thinking one way and dies thinking the same way. That’s intellectual growth.
“I actually want to find where we have a problem with this guy,” he continued, “so I can see if we can work it out. Right now, he looks almost too good.”
For now, Mr. Rangel sees his primary task as helping to pull together the disparate elements in the Clark camp with whom he is in regular contact, including about 20 Representatives and any number of major New York–based Democratic donors and activists. Despite the apparent chaos surrounding the campaign at the moment, he said, it’s starting to come together.
As an example, Mr. Rangel talked about his recent dealings with various donors.
“Those damn Democratic contributors had some type of a conspiracy not to give any money to anybody,” he said. “They were so proud of themselves: ‘The crowd’s too big; there’s no solid voice; we have to wait and see how things go; we’re not going to throw good money after bad.’ But pow! -in comes General Clark, and he got all their money. That may be very disorganized, but it works.”
He described something similar going on with his fellow House members. “I’m carrying around more damn pieces of paper in my pocket with all these ideas for the campaign. My job is to tell about all of this wonderful advice to the general without making him crazy.”
Mr. Rangel said that he’ll be attending a meeting on Oct. 8 with Mr. Clark’s campaign manager, Donnie Fowler, to discuss ways to get the campaign better organized.
Looking past the short-term campaign logistics, though, Mr. Rangel is confident that his instincts are going to be borne out again and that he’s picked himself another winner. Asked if he thought that Mr. Clark was the only Democrat who could succeed, Mr. Rangel said: “You could have what you think is your best team on the field, and then someone tells you, ‘Hey, there’s a superstar who’s eligible. And he’s better than the opposition.’ The others will say, ‘Look, I’ve been with this team for a long time,’ and so on. But in the end, it comes down to whether you just want to be liked, or whether you actually want to win.”