WASHINGTON – In “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks’ title character summed up his experience in as Vietnam as “always taking long walks” and “always looking for a guy named ‘Charlie.’”
Well, Monday night, I felt a lot like Forrest Gump. I had been walking all day, looking for a guy named Charlie. Only this time, I knew Charlie’s last name.
As in Rangel.
Democratic Congressman from New York. And Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
I found out late Sunday night that both the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer were running editorials demanding Rangel step down from his post.
Like Forrest Gump, that meant I’d spend Monday, looking for Charlie.
Last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to strip Rangel of his chairmanship. Boehner’s request came after an avalanche of ethics charges cascaded around the 19-term Harlem Democrat. Specifically, questions swirled about whether the congressman caught a break on his four rent-controlled properties in Manhattan; whether he misused House stationary; and why he failed to pay taxes and report income on a rental property in the Dominican Republic.
Last week, Rangel brushed off Boehner and defended himself in a unique, 20-minute presentation on the House floor. But now the pressure is mounting. Would Democrats or even the speaker accede to Boehner’s demands?
I knew Rangel wouldn’t hit Capitol Hill until late afternoon. The House was out of session Friday and lawmakers really didn’t have to be around the Capitol until 6:30 p.m. on Monday. The House leadership usually suspends votes until that time on the first day after a weekend. That’s so members can spend the weekend at home and then parachute in just before votes.
Much has been written about Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, a Delaware sentor, taking the train home each night to Wilmington from Capitol Hill. But few know that Rangel often rides the rails too.
I was quickly able to deduce that Rangel would be arriving at Washington’s Union Station on Amtrak's Acela train just before 4 p.m. ET.
A few more phone calls and visits with sources led me to learn that the chairman asked for a meeting with Pelosi sometime between 5 and 5:30 p.m. A little more digging helped me unearth the fact that Rangel would hold a meeting of Ways and Means Democrats at his hovel near the House floor around 7 p.m.
That was all the information I needed so I could “look for Charlie” later in the day. And based on that, I could pretty much guess the route he would take to see the speaker.
Like me, most reporters despise stakeouts. They consume inordinate amounts of time where they could be writing, tracking down another story or doing something constructive like frittering away time playing Sudoku. But stakeouts are part of the job. So, reporters make an educated guess on where their quarry might be and they wait.
Inside the Capitol, I posted a FOX News camera near halfway between Rangel’s Ways and Means hideaway and the speaker’s office. And as the time crept closer to 5 p.m., I trolled back and forth across regal Statuary Hall (the old House of Representatives chamber), looking for Charlie.
I was on the wrong end of Statuary Hall when Rangel rounded the corner just past 5 p.m. I had a wireless microphone in hand and raced across the room as my photographer Christian Galdabini picked up the chairman and began walking and shooting beside him.
A handful of other reporters trailed behind me. But never breaking stride, the usually gregarious Rangel cut me off before I could even sputter a question.
“Not today guys,” he thundered. “Ask what you have to. But at this point in time, I’m unable to answer any questions. So please don’t feel offended if you ask your best questions and don’t get an answer.”
By that time, Rangel had ducked into the speaker’s office.
The throng of reporters outside the speaker’s office grew. It doubled. Eventually, House staff shooed the cameras back down the hall. But reporters hung as members of the Democratic Leadership team and committee chairs squeezed past us into Nancy Pelosi’s quarters.
Eventually, Rep. Sander Levin, the third ranking Democrat on Rangel’s tax writing panel emerged from the speaker’s office. But Levin’s presence didn’t quite jibe with the rest of folks who were meeting with Pelosi.
I surmised he might be there to assume control of Ways and Means. Rep. Pete Stark is second in line behind Rangel for the gavel of the coveted chairmanship. But privately even Democrats view Stark as too combustible to lead the committee. Last fall, Stark raised the ire of his fellow lawmakers when he declared the White House sent military personnel to Iraq "to get their heads blown off for the president’s amusement.”
So, that could explain why Levin was in the meeting.
But later, all reporters staking out the speaker’s office experienced one of those “icky” moments we all face doing our jobs. Levin exited the office and a squadron of us descended on him on vultures. I asked Levin whether Rangel’s job was on the line and if there was talk of him succeeding his colleague.
Levin, wearing a black ribbon on his jacket, began to weep. “They all just expressed their condolences,” he said and walked away.
Puzzled, no one quite knew what to make of his response. Finally, one journalist interpreted for the rest of us. Levin’s 74-year-old wife Victoria just died of breast cancer. Very few of us even knew. Our stomachs spun. One reporter commented she felt “dirty” accosting Levin like that.
But it comes with the territory.
A little after 6:30 p.m., lawmakers began to filter out of the speaker’s office, including Rangel. We clustered around him, wondering if he would make a pronouncement, indicating whether he was still wielding the gavel of Ways and Means or had passed the baton.
We learned nothing.
Rangel stopped and made a declaration.
“In this very sensitive and political issue, as much as I would like to respect you and recognize that you have a professional obligation to ask questions, that professionally and politically, I don't intend to tell you my name. So then, don't waste your time.”
And with that, the unusually reticent Rangel strode toward the House chamber.
We all followed, notebooks and recorders in tow, no one really sure if they should venture another question.
A couple of scribes gave it their best shot, to no avail. I tried humor. Since Rangel said he wouldn’t even utter his name for us, I asked if he could now tell us who he was.
That triggered a smile and a deep belly laugh from the chairman as he walked into the House chamber.
Now the hunt shifted to the House leadership. A few minutes later Pelosi walked to the chamber. She seemed peeved so many of us were there. When I asked whether they talked about Rangel’s chairmanship, the speaker met my question with this rejoinder:
“We are talking about 500 points going down on the stock market,” she snapped. "That's what we're talking about. We're talking about Lehman Brothers going (down the) drain; Merrill Lynch being bought by another bank.”
But Pelosi conceded she neither asked for Rangel to step down nor did he offer to do so.
The hunt continued. It moved this time around the bend to Rangel’s small conference room located steps from the House floor. The Ways and Means Democrats shuffled in and out of the room for an hour. And again, a band of reporters stood by in the hallway, hoping a third time would be the charm.
Rangel, who served in Vietnam and earned the Purple Heart after being shot in the foot, must have felt he was surrounded by enemy forces all day long. When he emerged, the chairman stuck to his earlier promise of not commenting on the flurry of news enveloping him. And he proved that his military training nearly 60 years ago still served him well.
Rangel treated those of us in the press as though we were enemy forces and we finally trapped him behind enemy lines.
Like a prisoner of war, Rangel rattled off the minimum response required by the Geneva Convention.
"I am unable to say anything except Charles Rangel, Staff Sergeant, RA57156282, Second Division Infantry Division! Do to me what you want! I'm not talking! Have a great evening!"
And with that, Rangel gleefully exited the Capitol down a nearby flight of stairs.
Those of us in the press looked for Rangel all evening long. We finally caught him. But ultimately, our interrogation tactics proved unsuccessful on the wily Army staff sergeant who doubles as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He is the winner of an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his coverage of Capitol Hill.