Al Sharpton

How Al Charlatan became Al Kingmaker. 

If you doubt that Al Sharpton’s image has softened, listen to John McCain: “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics, and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell on the right.

For anyone else, this would be a devastating insult. For Sharpton, it’s progress. He used to be lumped with David Duke and decried as a preacher of hate. Now he has been promoted to Robertson’s level and deplored merely as an “agent of intolerance.”

Sharpton is reveling in the role of New York’s Democratic kingmaker. Hillary Clinton and Bill Bradley journeyed to his Harlem headquarters to kiss his ring, and Al Gore met with him privately. (“Hillary Clinton and Al Gore both have to come up here and see me. What does that tell you?” Sharpton gloated recently.) The Rev. Soundbite organized the Democratic presidential debate at the Apollo Theater and was given the honor of asking the first question. He led the marches and rallies that followed last week’s acquittal of the cops who shot Amadou Diallo, and his call for nonviolence—”Let us not throw one brick”—got him anointed “peacemaker.” Time calls Sharpton’s Diallo activism “his finest hour.” This compliment may not be as effusive as it sounds, given that so many of Sharpton’s other hours have been spent inciting violence, shouting slurs, and defaming innocents.

The rehabilitation of Sharpton may seem like a new story, but it’s not. This is not Sharpton’s second act. It’s his fifth. Every couple of years the media discover the New Al Sharpton—usually in a story headlined “The New Al Sharpton”—and every couple of years Sharpton tarnishes that polish.

A boy preacher and teen civil rights activist, Sharpton emerged as the voice of New York City’s black poor in 1986. After a black man died fleeing a white mob in Howard Beach, Sharpton marshaled the protests that prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor. He squandered what goodwill he’d earned with white New York a year later when he thrust himself forward as spokesman for Tawana Brawley, the black teen who claimed to have been abducted and raped by five white men. Sharpton labeled a suburban prosecutor named Stephen Pagones as a culprit and dared Pagones to sue. Even after a grand jury concluded that Brawley fabricated her story, Sharpton refused to renounce his vile accusations. In 1991 Al Charlatan disgraced himself again. A car carrying Hasidic Jews struck and killed a black child in Crown Heights. Sharpton fanned the riots that followed the boy’s death by railing against “diamond merchants” at his funeral. His signature chant was (and is) “No justice, no peace.” (Sharpton, of course, was the model for the race-baiting Rev. Bacon in Bonfire of the Vanities.)

The preacher’s first rehab occurred in 1992, when he took a hiatus from his job of rabble-rouser to enter the Democratic Senate primary. He traded track suits for three-piece suits, though he kept his beloved, James Brown-inspired “process.” Gov. Mario Cuomo, seeking to buttress his black support, gave Sharpton a prime speaking slot at the state convention. The media swallowed Sharpton’s professed reinvention: “A New Sharpton: The Maturing of a Maverick,” headlined a New York Times profile. “New Respect for Sharpton,” declared USA Today. He took 15 percent of the primary vote, including the majority of black votes. Sharpton repeated in 1994, taking 26 percent of the vote against Sen. Daniel Moynihan in the Democratic primary. Once more, the press love-bombed him.

Then Sharpton came undone again. In 1995 he organized demonstrations against a Harlem store called Freddy’s, denouncing the “white interlopers” who owned it. One of Sharpton’s protesters went on a shooting rampage in the store, then burned it to the ground. Eight people died. Sharpton restored the shine when he ran for the 1997 Democratic mayoral nomination. He won 32 percent of the vote in the primary and came within 1,000 votes of forcing a runoff with Ruth Messinger. Again, the press observed the “Remaking of the Rev. Al” and applauded the more temperate Sharpton.

Sharpton sabotaged himself anew. Pagones had sued him for his false Brawley accusations, and the case finally reached trial in 1998. In August 1998, Sharpton was found liable of defaming Pagones and ordered to pay him $65,000. Sharpton still wouldn’t apologize to Pagones or admit that Brawley made up her story. A month later, he flipped the bird to his critics by sharing the stage with reprehensibles Khalid Muhammad, Malik Shabazz, and Leonard Jeffries at the Million Youth March.

But you can’t keep Al down. When Amadou Diallo was killed in February 1999, Sharpton rushed to comfort the Diallo family. Then he stage-managed weeks of protests at police headquarters, arranging for everyone from David Dinkins to Susan Sarandon to 100 rabbis and rabbinical students to be arrested. Al was back. The pols began making their pilgrimages to Harlem. But take this to the bank: The new new Al Sharpton won’t last either. The cracks are already visible: During Bradley’s visit to Sharpton headquarters, Nation of Islam allies surrounded and threatened a black city councilman accompanying Bradley. During Hillary’s visit to HQ, a Sharpton comrade (and a member of his board) warmed up the crowd with anti-Semitic comments as the first lady waited backstage. Sharpton may have learned to temper himself, but he won’t steer clear of bad eggs.

Sharpton credits his current respectability to the overdue recognition that he’s the heir to Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. (He is obsessed with this: He points out that he is 13 years younger than Jackson, who is 13 years younger than King. He takes every opportunity to compare himself to his heroes. King, he says, was also sued for defamation.) Sharpton does deserve praise: He is one of the only champions of America’s poorest and most woebegone citizens, and he has served them devotedly for three decades.

It’s important not to make too much of the current Sharpton vogue. Sharpton cites his rising voting percentage as evidence of his expanding influence, but this is a numerical mirage. Though his percentages have increased, Sharpton’s vote totals have not. He won roughly the same number of votes in 1992, 1994, and 1997. The only reason his percentages rose is that turnout fell. In each election, he won about 130,000 votes in New York City. (He also won about 30,000 non-city votes in his 1992 and 1994 statewide runs.) Sharpton commands a sizable group of followers—about one-quarter of New York City’s black voters and a few Hispanics—but it’s not growing.

Sharpton is kingmaker not because he is getting stronger, but because the rest of the New York Democratic Party is so weak. George Pataki’s and Rudy Giuliani’s success has ripped the guts out of the party. The Democrats who held it together have vanished. Cuomo, Dinkins, and Ed Koch are gone. Moynihan is a national figure, not a local one. Hillary Clinton is an outsider. Old-time New York liberalism is discredited. In the rickety shack that remains, Sharpton is the strongest force, the only consistent and vigorous opposition to Giuliani. Sharpton’s block of votes may be stagnant, but at least he can deliver them, which is more than any other Democrat can do. (Sharpton can also derail a campaign by putting demonstrators on the street against it.) This is why all Democratic candidates must pay homage to him.

Sharpton’s rehab also depends on the media’s love affair with him. He claims Jesse Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and James Brown as surrogate fathers, and he is a close friend of Don King. In other words, the reverend can put on a show. Sharpton never saw a camera he didn’t mug for. Reporters in New York prize him, so he always has a platform. The local cable news channel, New York One, is so Al-friendly that it’s known as the “Sharpton News Network,” says political scientist Fred Siegel.

The folks who benefit most from Sharpton’s respectability are Republicans. Rudy Giuliani is delighted that Sharpton has become a power broker. Sharpton alienates New York whites, especially Jews, at least as much as he mobilizes poor blacks. Sharpton’s support of Hillary will swing thousands of white votes to Giuliani without costing Rudy a ballot—none of Sharpton’s people would have voted for him anyway.

Sharpton is a slow-moving target for national Republicans, too. McCain’s attack on Sharpton may mark the beginning of a long presidential campaign barrage. George Will just took a shot at him. So did the Weekly Standard. As the campaign continues, Sharpton may become the Bob Jones of the left. Republicans will ask, high-mindedly, why Al Gore is associating with such a hatemonger. Brawley footage will be recycled. Sharpton will be invited to Sunday morning talk shows. He will be in heaven.