On Monday afternoon, without any warning, the big oak door to Charlie Rangel’s Congressional office swung open and the congressman sauntered out into the fluorescent hallway.
It was just after 2 p.m. and a dozen reporters had been standing guard since Mr. Rangel abandoned his own ethics trial a few hours earlier–one of the more bizarre moments in recent Congressional memory–declaring, in his lilting rasp, that he did not have the funds for an attorney, and it would be unfair for the trial to proceed in light of that fact.
“There he is!” shouted one, as the group, which had been busying themselves on their laptops, scrambled to uproot their cameras from the floor and grabbed the fuzzy microphones leaning against the wall. Mr. Rangel was slowly ambling in the other direction.
How was he feeling? one reporter asked, as the cameras formed a half-circle of lights in front of him.
“Ohhhhh-kay, just going to get some soup,” he said.
Mr. Rangel did his best to sound upbeat, but, without his Cheshire cat grin, he looked downcast–out of character even in his trademark dapper suit. The old joke–that Congressman Rangel remains “unavoidable for comment”–no longer seemed to apply.
“I have no idea,” he said, when asked what he planned to do about the charges, which include accepting rent-controlled apartments, not paying taxes on rental income and soliciting charitable donations on his Congressional stationery.
Did he fire his lawyers to delay the proceedings?
“They were not fired,” he said flatly. How would he describe it? “As they did: They withdrew.”
“Yes, I saw it on television,” he said of the proceedings carrying on without him. “I don’t have any thoughts.”
Did he plan to attend any more of the ethics committee hearings? “I don’t think so,” he said softly.
The elevator doors swung shut, sealing off the wall of camera lights. Mr. Rangel stood quietly in the darkened center and looked upward. He wore a red striped tie, with a matching pocket kerchief. In his breast pocket was a shiny silver pen and a check, folded in half.
As he strolled through the basement level, his press aide, Hannah Kim, tried to brighten the mood by asking about his Veteran’s Day.
“Ohhhh, it was beautiful,” said Mr. Rangel, who served in the Korean War, and seemed to perk up at the subject.
“I’m gonna eat!” he told no one in particular as he made his way into the Rayburn Deli. A woman at the soup stand said she was proud of him as he ladled out a cup of ancho beef chili. It was $3.60, and he pulled out a roll of ones.
On his way back, soup in hand, Mr. Rangel explained to The Observer what he would like to accomplish in the coming term.
“I think it’s very important that we try to preserve the president’s leadership on taxes, on health care, on education. He didn’t have any support from the Republicans before, and now that they’re in the majority, he’s going to have less.
“So I have to be there for my Congress, for my country, for the president. Because–without sounding corny–each one of the issues the president has made a priority have been very moral issues and issues concerning national security. So I think it’s a patriotic thing and the moral thing to fight for the issues that we were involved in,” he said.
Mr. Rangel said that fight made all of this worth it.
“What’s the choice?” he wondered–though it has long been speculated that Mr. Rangel might choose to step down after his reelection and thereby make way for a successor of his choosing. “Never entered my mind–to quit. I think my district has told me what to do, in an overwhelming vote,” he said.
BACK IN HIS district, supporters watched to see whether the teetering House of Rangel would finally fall, and offered their own indictments of both the charges and the committee’s decision to move ahead without Mr. Rangel’s defense.
“I actually watched as much of it as New York 1 would air,” said the Rev. Vernon Williams, president of the Harlem Community and Clergy Coalition. “And what they showed was just incomplete to me.”
Mr. Williams had hoped to see a debate over the charges, but the committee met behind closed doors for most of the afternoon.
“When they did the O.J. thing, they did it all the way from the Bronco to the glove and ‘If it don’t fit it, you got to acquit,’” said Mr. Williams. “There’s no transparency. That leaves suspicion in my eyes.”
“When this first started, I got calls from Mississippi and Ohio, and they all think the same thing,” said Hazel Dukes, the head of the New York N.A.A.C.P., and a longtime ally. “It’s a witch hunt.”
Lynn Velasco, an assistant for Inez Dickens, said the councilwoman was not taking calls “because she’s thinking of the congressman and his family.”
“She feels this is somewhat unfair, unfounded, by which she means based on half-truths and misinformation,” said Ms. Velasco. “There were never any rent-controlled apartments at Lenox Terrace; there were rent-stabilized.”
Former comptroller Carl McCall had been watching the news all day as he recovered from a hip replacement.
Seeing Mr. Rangel stand before the panel was “terrible” and “unfortunate,” he said.
But even as Mr. Rangel undergoes an uncomfortable twilight, his allies are willing only to glimpse at a future without him.
“When Adam Clayton Powell was in there, people said, ‘Gosh, what do we do when Adam Clayton Powell is not there?’” said Mr. McCall. “If he’s going to be around for two more years, I think he’ll still be important. And after that, I think his leadership will be a model and a legacy for whoever carries it on.”