Charlie Rangel

It’s not every day that the Vice President of the United States accuses a veteran U.S. Congressman of having lost his marbles. Yet there was Dick Cheney in October, accusing Representative Charles Rangel—the outspoken dean of New York’s Congressional delegation—of being senior to the point of senility.

“Charlie is losing it,” Mr. Cheney said on conservative radio shows, responding to Mr. Rangel’s assertion that the Vice President was either sick or evil. “I think Charlie is a lot older than I am, and it shows.”

But on a recent morning in the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, named after the man Mr. Rangel succeeded more than 35 years ago, the Harlem grandee sat immaculately dressed in a dark navy suit and a matching burgundy tie-and-handkerchief set, insisting that his mind is still as sharp as his dress.

“I was flattered that he knew I was this old,” said the 75-year-old, his brown hands bedecked in white opal and red ruby, his wrists in silver and gold, his voice paved with gravel. “I knew all I had to do was challenge him to a psychiatric examination, to take a lie-detector test over the reasons we went to war. And I would have fun doing it. But then I realized that I could be showing disrespect for my country and the office.”

While some may question his over-the-top oratorical and sartorial style, few doubt Mr. Rangel’s devotion to his country and the city. His mix of guile and sheer optimism have transformed him from a clerk in a Harlem hotel to an unrelenting—if at times unpredictable—force in New York City politics. Developers or politicians hoping to make headway in Harlem know how valuable Mr. Rangel’s support can be.

“He is one of those powerbrokers, kingmakers, that if you want something done, especially in northern Manhattan, you need to have a talk with him first,” said Terence Tolbert, a political consultant working for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Over the last 15 years, his influence has grown exponentially.”

In his memorabilia-cluttered office, a Purple Heart honors his service in the Korean War and headlines document his rise to power. A black-and-white photograph of Mr. Rangel, David Dinkins, Basil Paterson and Percy Sutton, the young and ambitious men who ruled Harlem a generation ago, stands above a color photograph taken decades later of the same men, standing in the same order, all with less hair on their heads and more padding around their waists. Among them, only Mr. Rangel is still an active player in New York politics, and while other politicians have attenuated their tones with the passing of years, Mr. Rangel seems to get louder and louder.

But there is still the possibility that Mr. Rangel may yet become more than just the firebrand from the 15th Congressional District. If the Democrats take the House in 2006, Mr. Rangel would become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, adding more muscle to his familiar riffs against poverty and racism. “I believe that would be the brass ring,” Mr. Rangel said.

But that ring has dangled just out of reach for several election cycles now, and Mr. Rangel says his patience is wearing thin.

“I have not said this publicly, [but] it looks as though I will not be able to withstand the temptation of not being around in a minority for another two or three years—because, as you know, I’m 75; that would make me 76 in the election, and 77 and 78 in the minority. I think I am entitled to get out. And I just don’t see how I could argue against a young person moving forward,” said Mr. Rangel, weighing his words. “I really would have to think about giving someone else a chance.”

But while some soon-to-be-unemployed Harlem politicians, such as lame-duck Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, drool at the idea of the Harlem Congressional seat opening up, Mr. Rangel’s Democratic colleagues in the House are not eager to see him go.

“I think he is incredibly valuable on the floor of the House and back in the district,” said Representative Nita Lowey.

According to Congressman Gregory W. Meeks of Queens, the drafters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement added an entire country into the legislation to appease Mr. Rangel and his constituents from the Dominican Republic. He voted against it regardless.

“There is only one Charlie Rangel, and when he leaves, there is going to be a power vacuum,” said Mr. Meeks, who added that Mr. Rangel’s influence extended well beyond the city’s African-American community. “It will take a heck of a long time before you have someone out of the 15th, or out of New York, that is going to have that type of power again.”

But Mr. Rangel is perhaps most valuable for broaching the topics that not everyone is willing to touch, and his seniority and senior-citizenship have made him more brazen than ever.

“What makes a difference when you’re older is that you don’t have any excuse for not speaking out. None at all,” said Mr. Rangel, raising jet-black bushy eyebrows between his slicked-back silver hair and trimmed gray mustache. “You can’t say this might ruin my political career.”

That philosophy has been on ample display of late. At a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus in September, in the wake of the government’s anemic response to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Rangel declared that “George Bush is our Bull Connor,” referring to the Birmingham, Ala., police chief who in 1963 turned fire hoses and attack dogs on blacks demonstrating in favor of equal rights. The Republican Party leadership demanded an apology. It didn’t get one.

“Whether your experience is an asset or not, there is an assumption that just because you’re old, you’re smarter. And you got to take advantage of that,” he said. “Sometimes that just means nodding your head in agreement with them instead of saying, ‘I have no clue what the hell you’re talking about.’”

Mr. Rangel is given to facetious modesty, attributing his meteoric success to dumb luck, but he turns pensive and serious when it comes to his constituents dying in Iraq. “When I got to the casket, my knees collapsed,” he said, talking about a recent funeral for a local Army Reservist. “I got a picture of me before I went to Korea—he had my complexion, he had on my uniform, my brass, and I saw me. It scared the hell out of me,” said Mr. Rangel, speaking slowly. “It’s almost like a ghost. It was me.”

And just as suddenly as it came, all intimations of mortality slipped from his face as an aide knocked on the door and told him it was time to go out and shake hands. Down on 125th Street, the Congressman hopped into the passenger seat of a beat-up town car with a crooked rearview window and a littered back seat. His driver and friend of 30 years, Al Beckett, navigated through new apartment houses and hospitals that Mr. Rangel took credit for building. He put his cell on to speaker phone and juggled appointments with the Prime Minister of Haiti and a press conference that afternoon with Senator Hillary Clinton, who likes to say that Mr. Rangel first planted the idea of her running for Senate. (At that event, later in the afternoon, she thanked “Charlie for his years of dedication,” though her security detail made his car move for her motorcade.)

When Mr. Rangel’s car approached a long line of hungry people waiting for care packages of soap and soup, Mr. Rangel instructed Al to “Let me out.” He briskly walked down the sidewalk, giving and accepting high fives like a star football player being introduced into a lineup. His shortness of breath kicked more gravel into his voice, but he still managed to pick up the volume when a neighborhood woman thanked him profusely for coming down from Washington.

“I’m from Lenox!” he shouted.