Chairman of the Money

Photo: Nigel Parry

When Charlie Rangel, DeWitt Clinton High School dropout, first became a congressman from Harlem in 1971, beating the iconic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. by 150 votes, he would drive to Washington from his home on 132nd Street and Lenox Avenue in a beat-up Buick. “It was cheaper,” says Rangel in his quarry-pit voice. But mostly Rangel has flown the shuttle. Figuring how many times he’d made the trip, Rangel said multiply 36 (the years he’s been in office) times 52 times 2 (round-trips per week). From that, subtract the time Congress wasn’t in session. Still, it’s a lot of flights. But never had Dan Rather risen from his window seat to greet him.

“Mr. Chairman,” Rather said, with a slight nod of the head.

This is how it is for Charlie Rangel post-11/7, since the Democrats won Congress and the 76-year-old Harlem rep became the chairman-to-be of the House Ways and Means Committee, a body usually prefixed by the adjective powerful. Delineated in the Constitution, Congress has the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts”—i.e., Ways and Means is where the deals are cut on taxes, borrowing funds, Social Security, and control of trade and tariff legislation.

In other words, Rangel rasps, “the money.”

The Chairman of the Money tends to be a popular guy. Then again, Charlie Rangel has always been popular in Harlem, where many residents have never known another congressman. What is now called the Fifteenth District has been represented by exactly two men since 1945—Rangel and Powell. Asked if this was democracy, two guys in 62 years, Rangel honks, “The people know what they want.” Rangel has been reelected seventeen times, usually with more than 90 percent of the vote. Since “the chairmanship,” however, on One-Two-Five Street and up in Dominican Washington Heights (Hispanics make up 46 percent of the district now), wherever Charlie shows up, silvery hair swept back, iris shock tie and pocket handkerchief matched up just right, he is shown an extra helping of love.

“People come up to me saying, ‘We did it, we finally made it,’” reports Rangel, who’s been on Ways and Means since 1975, the last ten excruciating years as ranking member of the minority Democrats. “It’s like the whole neighborhood’s moving up.”

Ride with Rangel for a few days and congratulations come from every angle. They’re lining up to kiss the outsize green opal ring on his finger. One minute State Assembly strongman Shelly Silver is calling him “my great friend, one of our own … whom we can trust to do the right thing.” Then Mickey Kantor, former U.S. trade representative, is on the phone. Congrats on the chairmanship, says Cantor, and, by the way, maybe Rangel might want to talk a bit about U.S.-China trade relations? Mary Landrieu, senator from Louisiana, adds her good wishes, but what about that offshore-drilling bill?

And here comes Hillary, charging down the buffed hallways of the Capitol Building, with a hearty “Mr. Chairman!” Just the other day, Rangel ate breakfast with the senator in Harlem. Rangel figures he’ll overlook Hillary’s early pro-war stance. “If I swallowed John Kerry, I can swallow that,” he says. Rangel (who told Barack Obama to “go for it if you want; if you don’t, you’ll wind up hating yourself”) doesn’t think Rudy’s running (“He’s just building up his billings”) but hopes he does because “it’ll be fun, kicking the crap out of him.”

The whiplash over the power shift from lily-white Houston boardrooms to Sugar Hill has only begun. The other day, men from Pfizer dropped by Rangel’s 125th Street office. “He just wanted to say hello,” Rangel recounts. As for those nasty details about drug pricing (“gouging,” Rangel calls it) and exactly how the new chairman—a harsh critic of the status quo “health-care disaster”—was likely to view the role of big-time pharmaceutical companies, well, that was another conversation.

“I’ve got so many new friends these days,” Rangel says with mock amazement.

Rangel’s new status was clear enough during the recent dustup over the draft. Appearing on Face the Nation, Rangel kept to less-sexy Ways and Means issues, like the alternative minimum tax currently draining middle-class 1040s. As Charlie Rangel performances go, it was fairly uneventful. At no time did Rangel call Dick Cheney “a son of a bitch” or suggest the vice-president check into “rehab [to deal with] whatever personality deficit he may have suffered.” Nor did Rangel, as he did following Hurricane Katrina, refer to George W. Bush as “our Bull Connor,” a man who “shattered the myth of white supremacy once and for all.” Then host Bob Schieffer asked Rangel if he still believed in reinstating the draft.

Assemblyman Rangel walking the streets in 1970 after havng defeated Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the Democratic primary.Photo: Bettman/Corbis

Military conscription has little to do with Ways and Means, but Charlie Rangel, the most canny of loose cannons, has never been one to underplay his hand in a big spot. “You bet your life,” said Rangel, who has long opposed the volunteer Army, saying politicians would think twice about starting wars if their own children had to fight them.

Rangel told Schieffer: “If we’re going to challenge Iran and challenge North Korea and then, as some people have asked, to send more troops to Iraq, we can’t do that without a draft … How can anyone support the war and not support the draft?”

The reaction in the blogosphere and every other “-osphere” was loud and unanimous: Rangel was bonkers. The limp liberals of the New York Times editorial page, haven to who knows how many recipients of 2-S college deferments, said a draft would not achieve the aim of making “the armed forces more equitably representative of American society.” The chicken hawks of the right wing lambasted Rangel’s assertion that the military was inordinately composed of “people who can’t get a job doing anything better.” There were plenty of potential Rhodes scholars and Hardee’s CFOs slogging through the Iraqi sands, angry radio voices declared. To suppose otherwise was downright unpatriotic. As a testament to Rangel’s runaway moonbatism, commentators pointed out that when he introduced his draft bill in 2004, it was defeated 402 to 2.

“Rangel didn’t even vote for his own bill!” complained an eye-rolling Dick Cheney to Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (Rangel says he voted nay to protest Republican procedural finagling. John Murtha voted for it.)

Rangel, who has that raised-bushy-eyebrow, who me? thing down pat, purports to be “flabbergasted by the fuss” caused by his draft statements. “I’ve been talking about this for years and no one paid attention. I guess that’s the power of the majority.”

Gee, you think?

A world-class press hound, Rangel was soon wall-to-wall on the tube. “I want to push the debate, make them think about what exactly war means,” says Rangel, with the assurance of a man whose position on the issue has been impeccable for the past 56 years, ever since November 30, 1950, which was when he found himself, along with 40 or so other members of the all-black 503rd Field Artillery Battalion of the Second Infantry Division, hunkered down in a foxhole near the Yalu River.

“We had these 10,000 crazy-ass Chinese coming down on us,” recalls Rangel. “All I could hear was bugles, screams, and gunfire. Dead, bloated bodies were everywhere. Guys’ toes were falling off from frostbite. I thought we were deader than Kelsey’s nuts. The Chinese dropped leaflets saying they were colored people like us, and when we got back to the States we weren’t going to be allowed to swim in pools in Miami Beach and how could that be worth fighting for?

“In a situation like that, you don’t think about saving the world from communism, you think about surviving,” says Rangel, who despite shrapnel wounds managed to lead several soldiers to safety, for which he got the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, both of which now sit on a shelf in his 125th Street office. “People who haven’t been in war don’t understand what a difference a wrong step here, a bad decision there makes … That’s the question in Iraq. How long can you wait? By tomorrow it’s gonna be too late for someone. It is a matter of time … time running out.”

It makes sense that time would be on the mind of someone past his 76th birthday, even a workaholic (sixteen tightly scheduled hours per day is routine) who looks fifteen years younger and plans to keep going forever. Rangel gives you his happy-warrior line about how he’s “never had a bad day” since getting out of that foxhole, but he admits to feeling “the claustrophobia” of time. He says the chairmanship “couldn’t have come any later for me.”

Fact is, if the Democrats hadn’t won this time, Rangel would have retired. It would have solved a lot of problems; his wife, Alma, had been after him to stop for years. Mostly, though, “I couldn’t take it anymore, how the Republicans were running things. Someone like Tom DeLay has no interest in legislating. He just wants to push through policy. This wasn’t the Congress I’d grown up in. The House of Representatives was being destroyed right in front of me. Sending people to prison camp without trial, wiretapping without warrant. This was another kind of America. I didn’t want to be part of it.”

Word that Rangel might quit sent a chill through Harlem. It isn’t that he doesn’t have his rivals. The Reverend Calvin Butts, who has Adam Powell’s old job at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, has sniped at Rangel for years, once calling him “a timid politician” willing to “settle for crumbs.” But no one wanted to see all that seniority (some might say pork) go down the tubes. Local papers ran pleading headlines: BROTHER CONGRESSMAN! DON’T GO!

Senator Clinton congratulating the newly minted Chairman of the Money at a civic function in November.Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

A thoroughgoing secularist, rare among old-school black politicians in not bearing the honorific “Reverend” (his Catholicism once had Harlem Baptist ministers debating whether he should even be allowed to speak from the pulpit), Rangel has greeted the Democratic victory as tantamount to being born again. “For me, it’s a reprieve. My grandfather told me about seeing people getting lynched, how it haunted him, thinking what he could have done about it. I didn’t want to have my grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do when the Constitution got ripped up?’ and have to answer, ‘I quit.’ ”

So there he is, getting called Mr. Chairman, living what he calls “my honeymoon,” which figures to go on through the first week of the 110th Congress. That’s when, Rangel says, “the clock will start ticking again … We got two years to turn things around.” It is, as Rangel says, “a short fuse.”

Once it seemed as if Charlie Rangel had all the time in the world. “Growing up in Harlem, I didn’t think much about the future. My father left when I was 6. I was just drifting around.” Indeed, it isn’t hard to find Harlem codgers willing to boast, “Charlie Rangel? Shit. I used to take his lunch money.” The Army changed that. “When I came out of the service in 1952,” Rangel says, “I had so much self-esteem.”

Back home, however, was not all that different. “I had a hundred jobs. I worked in a drugstore. The Adler Shoe Store. Sold vacuum cleaners.” He also worked down in the garment center, where he had the epiphany that set him on his life path. “I was unloading a truck, and these boxes fell out, spread all over the street. This cop came over and said, ‘You better clean that up, boy.’ I started picking up the boxes, and I’m thinking, I’m pretty sick of this crap. I thought I’d reenlist, go back into the Army. Then I thought to myself, ‘No. I’m Sergeant Charles Fucking Rangel. Who are these people to treat me like this?’”

Rangel went back to high school, at age 23. He took a job-aptitude test that indicated he’d make a swell mortician, a classic race-based track for black men. Rangel’s response was “screw that.” He used the GI Bill to pay for school, getting his degree at NYU in three years, then enrolled at St. John’s law school. Becoming a lawyer seemed logical.

“The most important person in my life was my grandfather,” Rangel relates. “He was an elevator operator at the court buildings downtown. He wore a neat uniform and was always talking to men in slick suits. I got the idea that being a lawyer or a judge was the most magnificent thing a human could do. It was funny, though, when I told my grandfather I was going to be a lawyer; I thought he’d never stop laughing.”

He put himself through school as a desk clerk on the night shift at the Hotel Theresa, sometime home to Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, and Moms Mabley. Moms defended Rangel when he was caught reading his law books on the job. “Let the boy study,” the old chitlin-circuit comic snorted. Rangel was at the Theresa when Fidel Castro came to the U.N. after the Cuban revolution. “They said he got thrown out for plucking chickens in his room, but I never heard about that,” says Rangel, a longtime opponent of the U.S. embargo of the island. Once, meeting with Castro, Rangel said the U.S. might see things differently if he held “free and fair elections.” Castro said he did have “free and fair elections.”

“But you get all the votes,” Rangel said. Castro replied, “Don’t you?”

Rangel started his career as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District. Later came a term in the State Assembly, which set him up to run against Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in what remains the most pivotal election ever held in Harlem.

“I knew Charlie could beat Adam; all he had to do was listen to me,” says former Manhattan borough president and Ur–Harlem businessman Percy Sutton, who along with Basil Paterson and David Dinkins and Rangel (who calls Sutton “my mentor”) formed the so-called Gang of Four, young-Turk Harlem politicians chafing under Powell’s increasingly erratic suzerainty.

“In the beginning I called him Pretty Boy Rangel, to denigrate him, because he was one of those handsome types, hair pushed down and that mustache. But he had a way about him, with that great humor, an ability to influence people,” recalls Sutton, who, like Rangel, lives at the Lenox Terrace apartments, Harlem’s revered power address. (As a young pol, Rangel was summoned to the Terrace apartment of the aging Bumpy Johnson. Harlem’s most famous gangster wanted to look at the new guy in town. “He said I looked okay and I left, fast,” Rangel says.)

“Adam was a great man, but he didn’t understand the new Harlem,” Sutton continues. “He went down to Wyatt Tee Walker’s church on 116th Street and condemned Martin Luther King Jr. That’s when I knew he was slipping, ego getting the best of him. We told Charlie to go down to Selma to march. When he came back, we said here’s the man who wears the orange vest of courage, which is what the marchers wore … Adam thought it was all in the bag. How could anyone beat him?”

Dead since 1972, Powell still casts a shadow. Rangel’s office is in the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. In a 1994 primary, Adam Clayton Powell IV, running almost exclusively on his father’s name, held Rangel to a spindly 58 percent. Not that you’ll ever hear Charlie Rangel utter a bad word about Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He says, “I keep the faith, always, baby.”

“I couldn’t take how the Republicans were running things. The House was being destroyed right in front of me. I didn’t want to be part of it.”

Ask Rangel how come it seems like every black politician in New York is another politician’s son or daughter, and he cackles. “I call that the ‘no child left behind’ school of politics … My mother was a seamstress, there was no family business to go into.” So he rolls on, secure in his mottled skin, the self-made wise old head, dean of the delegation. “Talking to Charlie is like getting the lottery numbers early, because if history repeats itself, who’s seen more history than him?” says state assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., one of those politicians’ sons.

Retirement talk aside, Rangel never gets tired of being the congressman from Harlem. “I’ve always lived in Harlem. Never wanted to go anywhere else.” The most cosmopolitan of neighborhood guys (he can be seen cruising down St. Nicholas Avenue at the wheel of his own car, sans a single bling-encrusted bodyguard), Rangel says he’s never wanted any other office. Standing in front of the Capitol Building, he says, “Couldn’t be a senator—going all around the state, talking to farmers, taking pictures with pigs and cows? Forget that.” Likewise, he’s never been tempted to be mayor. “Staten Island? No.”

All this raises the question, if Rangel really is Harlem, and vice versa, what’s he really done for the uptown ville in his long tenure? The answer to this is a matter of perception. During the dope plagues of the seventies and eighties, Rangel was on the front lines of the farkakt war on drugs, chairman of the congressional committee on narcotic abuse. He visited South American countries, made tough-love speeches, set up programs. Yet 125th Street was still overrun by crack. Despite much legislation aimed at job creation, unemployment in his district remained among the highest in the country. After years of talking about upgrading neighborhood schools, now he says he’s “all but given up on public education. I see no relationship between what our kids get in school and the ability to make a life for themselves.”

Detractors—hard to find these days—say Rangel’s legislative activism is really “a cover,” since no one ever solves massive sociological problems like drug use and unemployment. “It’s a failure-proof, no-blame situation for him,” says one close observer. “He can always say, ‘Look, I’m only one guy. What do you expect?’ ” Others disagree. “In Harlem, you’re always going to have your cynics—people who say he’s done nothing, he’s only in it for himself. But that’s wrong,” says Kenny Knuckles, head of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, part of the $500 million infusion of public and private capital that has changed the face of Harlem in the past few years. “Charlie Rangel wrote the empowerment legislation. He made it happen,” says Knuckles.

Argue all you want whether a new condo development on every block, Home Depot, and latter-day white hipsters getting off the A train at 145th rank with Countee Cullen and Minton’s Playhouse when it comes to a Harlem Renaissance. Gentrification is a citywide conundrum. Why should Harlem be any different? There’s some irony that Rangel, a link to an earlier, more flamboyant uptown, will be remembered as a prime mover of this shinier, corporate version. It is a legacy that will no doubt preclude the rise of another Charlie Rangel, the new Harlem figuring to be full of competing power interests, not the sort of place that elects the same guy for 36 years.

Rangel says, “Housing prices are a problem. But better than boarded-up buildings. Everything changes. But Harlem will stay Harlem.”

Rangel’s ardor for his uptown vote bank was on display at a recent holiday turkey giveaway held by the Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club. In the interests of decorum, you had to sign up in advance. There was to be no walk-up largesse. Told this, a grizzled man in a Florida Marlins baseball cap and using a golf putter as a cane said, “I can’t have no turkey?” Since he’d lived in Harlem all his life and always voted Democratic, he felt entitled. Hearing Rangel would be there, the man scoffed.

“Oh, Mr. Draft,” he said. “That’s the stupidest fucking thing that ever came out of that man’s mouth.” The man said being in the military was the worst experience of his life and anyone who advocated “sticking a gun in a young man’s hand” was “sick in the head.” He’d tell Rangel exactly that, too, straight to his face.

When the congressman arrived, the man engaged him in animated conversation. Later, standing behind a table piled high with bags of Arnold herb stuffing, Rangel said there was a man outside who’d signed up for a turkey but his application was unfortunately lost. The man had a sick mother to boot. The guy in the Marlins cap came in, got his turkey. Clutching cans of cranberry sauce, he turned to say it was “his valuable military service” that earned him his holiday dinner. In the Army, he said, “they teach you speak up for yourself.” Informed of this, Rangel could only smile and shake his head.

Today, in the final throes, so to speak, of the 109th Congress, it is moving day at Rayburn, the House office building. Hallways are lined with desks and chairs. “Losers’ furniture,” says a mover, pushing a “Republican watercooler” on a dolly. Rumpled features pushed forward like the hood ornament of an old DeSoto, Rangel trundles through the electoral detritus without comment. He sees no reason to rub it in.

Not that Rangel didn’t allow himself “a period of gloating.” This largely centered on his plan to “repossess” H208, an office traditionally used by the Ways and Means Committee but loaned out by the Republican majority to Dick Cheney. Eschewing sending an exterminator to give the place a quick spray, Rangel says he decided to “be gentle as I restore the dignity of that office … But still: When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Rangel says he’s tired of Democrats standing around with goony looks on their faces, “pinching themselves” to make sure the Wicked Witch is really dead. The other day, when his colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus, the group he helped found, cheered his ascension to chairman, he was heard to say, “Knock it off already.”

“The election’s over. We won,” he says. “Let’s do business.”

In 1975, when Rangel switched from the Judiciary Committee to Ways and Means, Charles Diggs, a thirteen-term black congressman from Detroit, said he was nuts. “He said no one ever leaves Ways and Means, that I’d be a freshman for 30 years.” After twenty years, however, through some unexpected attrition—including longtime chairman Wilbur Mills’s being caught in the midst of an affair with stripper Fanne Foxe—Rangel found himself the committee’s third-ranking Democrat.

“Only Sam Gibbons and Jake Pickle were ahead of me,” Rangel recounts. He didn’t become the ranking Democrat until 1996, after Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America. It has been a decade of fronting an increasingly marginalized minority.

The past six years, sitting beside Republican chairman Bill Thomas, have been particularly vexing. Hearing that Thomas had once been named the House’s “meanest” and “second brainiest” man in a poll of congressional aides, Rangel says, “Right on both … All those years, he never once asked me for a vote. He did everything he could to stifle debate and the democratic process in general.” Plus, Rangel says, “the man has no personality. None.”

The animosity came to a head most infamously in July 2003, when, as Rangel puts it, “Thomas called the cops on me.”

As Rangel tells it: “Thomas came in with a revision of this giant pension bill. A big thick thing. He says we’re going to vote on it. I said we haven’t even read it, how can we vote? He said too bad … I told my guys, that’s it. We went into the library, said we weren’t coming out until we were done reading. Thomas went bananas. He said if we didn’t get out of the library he’d call the Capitol Police, which he did. The sergeant at arms knocked on the door and said, ‘I’m sorry, but it seems as if the chairman has called the police.’ We looked at him like you must be kidding.”

Days later, citing his “poor judgment,” Thomas tearfully apologized on the House floor. “I felt bad for him,” Rangel says. “I didn’t think he was going to cry.”

It was a lot of heavy water under the bridge, Rangel says as he passes through the Capitol Hill tunnels to 1100 Longworth, the Ways and Means hearing room. It’s a trek Rangel has made thousands of times over the years. But this one is different. This is the last hearing of the 109th Congress, the final time Rangel would sit in the smaller leather chair directly to the left of Thomas’s big one.

“Hey, Charlie, just don’t let the door hit him on the way out,” says a woman on the elevator. The fact that she’s a Republican bears out Rangel’s contention that many in Congress, conservatives included, are pleased autocrats like DeLay are gone, that people are sick of thinking of the opposing party as mortal enemies.

“You’ll see,” Rangel says, turning to the woman. “I’ll be nicer than you’d think.”

As far as Rangel’s concerned, the restoration of civility is part of his job as chairman. “Most of the younger people in Congress have never experienced working in a bipartisan way,” he says. Just the night before, he attended a party for Nancy Johnson, one of the five Ways and Means Republicans who lost in the election. Clearly touched, Johnson said, “One of the worst things about losing is not getting the chance to work with you.”

Rangel allowed himself “a period of gloating,” centered on a plan to “repossess” an office that had been loaned to Dick Cheney. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

Mr. Congeniality stuff aside, the Hill is abuzz as to what Rangel will do as chairman. Far more of a policy wonk than most suspect, often burning the midnight oil studying arcane trade packages, Rangel can be expected to fight off any dead-ender Republican action on Social Security privatization. He will also push for a repeal of Bush’s tax cuts. Asked if he thought any of the cuts deserved to be renewed, Rangel said, “I can’t think of one.” This doesn’t mean the business community sees no silver lining in Rangel’s rise. A recent story in The Weekly Standard, “Harlem Globetrotter,” detailed Rangel’s fondness for free trade, making the case for him as a “pragmatist,” a “deal-maker,” and potential closet globalizer.

What being chairman will do to Charlie Rangel is something else again. People talk about how he’d better watch his back, that Cheney and henchmen like Alberto Gonzalez are likely doing a fine-tooth job to see what dirt they can find on him. “Let them look,” Rangel says. In 1999, New York State attorney general Dennis Vacco charged Rangel and old pal Percy Sutton with financial malfeasance and mismanagement of the Apollo Theatre. Vacco’s successor, Eliot Spitzer, exonerated Rangel, with the proviso he remove himself from the board of the Harlem landmark. This aside, few accuse Rangel of being in it for the money. Rangel’s more concerned about “my routine.” Known to run his office like a fifties City Council member, Rangel says he’ll be a little less hands-on. “Someone else will have to return all these calls.”

Job one is filling the committee with people he likes—i.e., as many New Yorkers as possible. “I’ll try this on an equity basis,” he tells some power trader on the phone. “If not, I’ll make it happen politically.” In other words, down in the trenches. Whatever, it works. Rangel got Queens County leader Joe Crowley on the committee, the guy he wanted all along.

A chairman has to multitask, Rangel explains. To wit: He begins telling a story about how he was working in his office one night when Jorge Mas Canosa, leader of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, showed up unannounced. Mas Canosa told Rangel it might be healthier if he gave up his opposition to the Cuban embargo. “What are you implying?” Rangel wanted to know.

Rangel is interrupted in mid-story. Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sánchez has arrived.

“Mr. President!” Rangel shouts, greeting Arias and his ministers. A far-reaching discussion of U.S.–Costa Rica economic relations ensues, including much talk about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Rangel voted against. A half-hour later, after calling Rangel “one of the most powerful people on the globe,” Arias leaves. He’s barely out the door when Rangel picks up the Mas Canosa story exactly where he stopped.

However it goes on Ways and Means, depend on Rangel to be in charge. Case in point was a recent Capitol Hill breakfast for the New York congressional delegation with then Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer. Chuck Schumer was extolling Rangel as “a straight shooter,” saying how proud everyone was that “Charlie had finally reached the promised land,” when Rangel, impatient to start the meeting, let forth with an eardrum-rattling whistle. “Now,” he shouted, in Sergeant Rangel mode.

“He also can whistle really loud,” Schumer added, skulking off to his seat.

Rangel’s last hearing in the minority—on Medicare payments for “end-stage renal disease”—goes off without incident. Acknowledging that it’s outgoing chairman Thomas’s birthday that very day, Rangel says he wants the record to show that “regardless of what many may think,” he has “never had an unpleasant conversation with Bill Thomas, outside this room.” That about covers it.

Later, Rangel is still in the now-empty 1100 Longworth. It is a large, impressive room hung with portraits of former Ways and Means chairmen. Some, like Wilbur Mills (1957–1974) and Dan Rostenkowski (1981–1994), served a long time, then went down in flames. Others like Harold Knutson, Republican of Minnesota (1948–1949), are largely forgotten. James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley became president. Now the portrait of Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, will join them.

“Never had my portrait painted before,” Rangel croaks. His likeness will, of course, be the first of a black man to adorn the stately walls of 1100 Longworth. Noting that a number of other Americans of color, old colleague John Conyers and Brooklyn’s Nydia Velasquez among them, would be chairing committees in the 110th Congress, Rangel says he is “honored that the descendants of slaves might have their chance to restore the Constitution in this great nation of ours during this time of need.”

To sit in the big chair at the front of 1100 Longworth, where he’s spent so much of the past three decades, seems a fitting end to Rangel’s particular American journey. Looking around, he says, “I’ve always thought this was a beautiful room.”

Chairman of the Money