By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A02
The moment Charlie Rangel walked into the ballroom for a luncheon with the National Urban League on Wednesday, he was surrounded by reporters and cameras.
Politely, as ever, Rangel declined to answer questions, until Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal asked, "How are you feeling, sir?"
The embattled lawmaker flashed a million-dollar smile and tucked his thumbs in his lapels. "How do I look?" he replied.
Rangel looked great: The 80-year-old Democratic congressman from New York had a rose-colored handkerchief in his pocket and a pink necktie over a gold collar bar and a textured two-tone shirt, all brought together by a black pinstriped suit that accented his silver hair and mustache. But beneath that dapper exterior was a man in turmoil, a politician who had mere hours to choose between two grim options.
Charged with multiple violations of House ethics rules over his fundraising, his financial forms and his taxes, Rangel has until Thursday to strike a plea bargain that would require him to admit to serious ethics offenses. Otherwise, he will be put on trial this fall by his colleagues. If he chooses the first option, he will probably never recover his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, which he was forced to surrender earlier this year. If he chooses the second option, the resulting spectacle makes it more likely that no Democrat will be the Ways and Means chairman, because the political damage could help Republicans take the House.
A few backbench Democrats have called for Rangel's resignation, others are pushing him to settle the charges, and "everybody," as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer puts it, "would like to have it go away."
Yet Rangel pressed on as if he was untroubled by the life-altering decision facing him. "It's going to be a wonderful luncheon," he informed the reporters as he made his way into the ballroom at the convention center.
It might have been more wonderful if 15 cameras weren't filming him as he ate his salmon lunch and accepted sympathetic pats on the back from the Urban Leaguers. A similar number of cameras awaited his arrival on the stage, after the Urban League official introducing him recalled his status as a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus but skipped gently past Rangel's lost Ways and Means chairmanship by obliquely noting that he "currently serves as that committee's senior member."
African drum music sounded, the audience applauded, and that famous, raspy voice filled the hall. He made no direct mention of his troubles, but those seeking allegorical significance in his words could easily find some. He spoke of being an "old-timer" at an Urban League reception the night before, and about the young people carrying on the traditions. "Whether it's personal or political, we all know that life ain't been no crystal stair," Rangel said. "And what we have to do," he continued, is make sure "that fairness and equity includes us. And any time, for any purpose, we find ourselves excluded, there's something that we can't do: We can't give up, we can't give out, and we can't give in."
"And all I can promise you," Rangel went on, "is that, when the sun shines and everything is settled, we once again will be standing together with dignity and with honor to complete our jobs for our communities and these great United States."
In a show of confidence, or defiance, Rangel, rather than slip back behind the curtain, then walked out the center aisle and right into the pack of reporters. "Okay, let's get together," he said, allowing the cameras to encircle him. "Believe me, as unpleasant as it may appear to be tomorrow, you cannot be asking for a hearing and a discussion of the facts for close to two years while not feeling some sense of relief that at long last we can talk about the allegation."
A relief? An aide put a hand on Rangel's back and tried to lead him away, but the mob followed him down the convention-hall stairs, some calling out questions and a few stumbling on the steps. Outside, his staffers tried frantically to locate Rangel's driver, while the congressman pulled out a cellphone and pleaded, "I have to make a couple of calls, and at some point it would be very nice if I could say, 'Thank you, see you later.' " Finally, a silver PT Cruiser pulled up with New York plates saying "NYREP15" and Rangel climbed in.
"Excuse me, who was that?" a young woman on the sidewalk asked the reporters.
That was Charlie Rangel, who took 36 years to climb to the top, only to lose it all in an instant.