The Saddest Day in the Life of Charlie Rangel

He walked alone. And he already looked like a beaten man.

On an average weekday, the underground channel that snakes between the U.S. Capitol and the House office buildings beneath Independence Avenue usually teems with lawmakers and Congressional aides. They bustle back and forth, shuttling from meetings and hearings in the office buildings to votes on the House floor.

But the passageway was strangely vacant late Thursday morning as Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) departed the House chamber after voting and ambled through the tunnel unattended.

Rangel boasted no entourage of staff. No security detail. No lawyers. Not even the usual phalanx of journalists that now shadow him at every turn.

For this journey, Charlie Rangel was going stag. And the subterranean traverse had to be one of the longest walks of the Congressman's life as he approached the fate that awaited him at the end of the tunnel.

Like a scene from a movie, the House Ethics Committee summoned Rangel to the third floor of the Longworth House Office Building precisely at noon to pass a sentence on him. Earlier in the week, the panel found Rangel guilty on 11 charges of Congressional misconduct.

Rangel expected the committee to propound a punishment for him. He just didn't know what sanction his fellow lawmakers might mete out.

Reporter Todd Zwillich of public radio's "The Takeaway" and yours truly spied Rangel by himself in the underground corridor as he walked. We had questions. Would he address the committee today? Would he have counsel present? Rangel confirmed he would speak to the committee. But no lawyer would represent him.

So we left Rangel alone in the long tunnel.

Perhaps it was only appropriate that Rangel chose this route to navigate his way to the ethics hearing. The corridor doubles as an art gallery. Dozens of paintings and photographs from the 29th Annual Congressional High School Art Competition adorn the walls of the tunnel. Students send their work to Washington and each lawmaker selects a winner from his or her district. The House then hangs the art in the tunnel.

The tortured titles of the artwork fit the mood of Rangel's traverse.

"Alone in Thought" by Kassie Stark was the offering from the district of Rep. Adrian Smith (R-NE). Stark's ink drawing showed a distraught African American man clasping his head with both hands.

The high schoolers titled other works "Disappointment," or "Overcoming the Worst of It" and "Fallen."

Ironically, the work from the Congressional district represented by Ethics Committee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) was called "Stressing Out."

About halfway through the tunnel, Rangel paused for a moment near the spot where the House displayed works from the New York delegation. He collected his thoughts and leaned with both hands on a railing that separated the walkway from the artwork. He pondered the art pieces. And it looked like Rangel inspected the winner from his district: Datauwn Frazier's dizzying array of red and orange swirls called "The Truth Beneath the Sea."

It's unclear if Rangel inspected a multimedia offering from Kevin Cochran, a constituent of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO). Cochran's entry featured a chaotic collection of calendars and notebook paper. An actual clock embedded in the upper, right-hand corner of the piece ticked away, counting down the minutes until Rangel was due to appear before the Ethics Committee.

Cochran titled the piece "The Time We Faced Doom."

The singular solace of Rangel's underground walkabout stood in stark contrast to the pandemonium that's accompanied the Harlem Democrat since his ethics trial launched Monday. Rangel entered the basement of the Longworth building virtually unbothered by any of the passersby, scurrying to lunch or to meetings. While waiting for an elevator to the hearing, Rangel bumped into Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX). McCaul is a member of the Ethics Committee and was the GOP's top figure on the special panel created to try Rangel. The men shook hands and then hopped on the elevator.

Rangel's solitude halted when he disembarked on the third floor and into a throng of press.

Rangel strode slowly down the Longworth hallway toward a machine gun-like round of camera shutter clicks. Like a beacon, a blinding light affixed atop a TV camera vectored Rangel toward the hearing room.

When the hearing began, Ethics Committee lead counsel Blake Chisam soon declared that censure would be the appropriate sanction for Rangel. Censure is essentially a reprimand on steroids. And the House has only censured 22 other lawmakers in the history of the institution. In fact, the House hasn't censured anyone since 1983. That's when it censured former-Reps. Daniel Crane (R-IL) and Gerry Studds (D-MA) for sexual misconduct with teenage House pages.

When a lawmaker is censured, he or she stands in the well of the House while the Speaker delivers a verbal rebuke.

And upon the censure pronouncement, Rangel seemed strangely alone again. The gaggle of press, Congressional staff, police officers and onlookers, not withstanding.

Rangel, stripped earlier this year of the gavel he wielded as Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, began to tear up as he threw himself at the mercy of his judges and jury.

"I apologize for any embarrassment I've caused you individually or collectively as a member of this greatest institution in the country and the world," Rangel said, his voice quivering.

The full House must vote to censure Rangel. But incoming Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) says Rangel has already been punished.

"This is the saddest day in the life of Charlie Rangel," said Cleaver. "I don't think they can do anything to him that would exceed the pain."

Cleaver noted that he could tell the stress was taking a toll on Rangel and could see it in his colleague's face and gait.

"(Some) people would like him to suffer more," Cleaver said.

A Methodist pastor, Cleaver says Rangel sought him out after learning about the proposed punishment.

"He did request prayer," Cleaver said, adding that the two "knelt down on one knee" in supplication.

Rangel may have been alone in his walk to the hearing. However, he was anything but alone as he twice attempted to leave the Ethics Committee sessions with a prodigious press scrum huddled around him. On the first occasion, Rangel headed toward the main bank of elevators in the Longworth building. Unable to quickly catch a car, reporters used the opportunity to bark a battery of questions at Rangel.

At the end of the day, the scene repeated itself at another elevator. Reporters and photographers pressed against Rangel as he waited for what seemed like a near-eternity for an elevator car. The elevator finally arrived. And Rangel found a companion to commiserate with. A very surprised looking Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) was already on board the elevator when Rangel squeezed in to elude the press corps. Honda stared in amazement at the media cluster squeezed together in the hall, nearly accosting his Democratic colleague.

So the House won't take up the censure recommendation until after Thanksgiving. The House can vote to accept the Ethics Committee's report or reject it. House members can even dial the punishment up or down. It all depends on what a majority of members want to do.

Either way, Charlie Rangel's legendary Congressional career is headed for an ignominious punctuation mark.

And much like his walk through the House tunnel, Rangel seems very much alone.