Near the end of 2007, Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett met with Al Sharpton in New York City and began to cement a relationship that would eventually make the inflammatory activist the president’s “go-to man” on race, according to multiple sources.
The backdrop to the incipient Obama-Sharpton alliance was the then-senator’s 2008 presidential campaign, which still hadn’t locked away the black vote, and the political cross-currents created by two other controversial reverends, Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright.
That tentative relationship has now grown into a full-blown partnership that has vastly increased the once-shunned Sharpton’s influence and prestige and elevated him into a key White House ally at a time of heightened tension over policing and race.
In 2007, media outlets no less prestigious than the New York Times, CNN, National Public Radio, and Time questioned whether Obama, with his multiracial and perhaps post-racial narrative, could truly count on securing the black vote. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was pressuring African-American leaders to support her, especially before the primary in heavily black South Carolina.
(If you’ll recall, racial tensions rose at Jena High School after three nooses appeared swinging from campus branches in August 2006, an apparent threat to a black student who wanted to sit under the tree in an area white students often occupied. Several fights had broken out between white and black students that fall, but when six black students beat up a white student in December, they were charged with attempted second-degree murder, though the victim’s injuries were only superficial. Outrage about the severity of the charges ensued.)
Jackson said Obama had not adequately weighed in and was “acting like he’s white,” adding that “if I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena.”
And as it turned out, from her days in Chicago, Jarrett already “hated Jesse Jackson,” a source close to Sharpton tells me. “Obama needed a legitimate black voice from the civil-rights community,” the source adds. “Jesse had made disparaging comments about Obama, [so] Jesse got sidelined. Sharpton is the next person in line.”
Brian Mathis, a media-shy New York financier who had attended law school with Obama and raised money for his campaign, helped open communications between Jarrett and the reverend, sources close to Sharpton say. Around December 2007, they say, Jarrett met with Sharpton to talk politics in New York; some place the meeting at the exclusive Grand Havana Room cigar club on the 39th floor of a Fifth Avenue skyscraper.
Sharpton disputes their account, telling NRO it is “unequivocally untrue” that Jarrett courted him for the Obama campaign. “I had already had a developing dialogue with [Obama], and he even spoke at [National Action Network’s] 2007 convention in April,” Sharpton tells me. He adds: “I’ve known Ms. Jarrett as introduced to me by the president. . . . I don’t remember ever meeting her in the Grand Havana Room. Does she smoke cigars?”
Regardless of the venue, sources close to Sharpton say that in late 2007 or early 2008, Jarrett negotiated a simple deal with the reverend: Sharpton would discreetly support Obama for president, working mostly behind the scenes; he wouldn’t publicly criticize Obama, but he also wouldn’t back him in a way that aroused attention.
Jarrett sought this careful balance after watching how Sharpton had become a political liability for John Kerry in his 2004 campaign. Several attack ads aired in critical states highlighted the close relationship between Kerry and Sharpton, to devastating effect.
Then again, such tacit-support agreements are Sharpton’s “standard M.O.,” says Wayne Barrett, a veteran New York political investigative reporter who has written extensively on the reverend. “Sharpton is the only guy who prospers for not making an endorsement. . . . I don’t think Obama ever wanted Sharpton to endorse him — Obama wanted some distance. . . . [The campaign] didn’t want Sharpton to hurt Obama, but they didn’t want him to be too helpful, either.”
Though Sharpton remained publicly neutral, his quiet support for Obama “eventually added to the narrative that a lot of African-American leaders were leaving [Hillary Clinton’s] campaign to go to support Obama,” says Basil Smikle, a former Clinton Senate aide.
Sharpton told NRO he could not remember when he decided to support Obama over Clinton, but that he made the decision based on Obama’s “consistent record against the war in Iraq — that was vital to me,” as well as his education policy.
The real test of Sharpton’s loyalty came in March 2008, when the content of sermons made by Obama’s longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, drew national attention.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, Wright had preached that “violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism. . . . America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” In another sermon, he said: “No, no, no. Not God Bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human.”
Wright’s comments created a big dilemma for Obama. On one hand, a Pew poll found that more than one in three voters thought less of him after hearing about Wright’s sermons, and the campaign knew the controversy could especially harm his standing with white voters. On the other hand, Wright was beloved and respected in many black congregations nationwide, so denouncing him could alienate one of Obama’s crucial constituencies.
Gradually and reluctantly, Obama distanced himself from Wright, finally ending his family’s membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in May. Behind the scenes, the Obama campaign relied on Sharpton to reach out to influential black pastors across the U.S., persuading them not to revolt against Obama for his treatment of Wright, several sources close to Sharpton say.
Sharpton confirms his support of Obama throughout the Wright controversy: “That was at a time where we didn’t know whether we were going to win or lose,” the reverend says. “I encouraged everybody, not just black pastors, that I was going to continue to support [Obama].”
Sharpton’s damage control of the Wright controversy won him trust with Obama, laying the groundwork for a relationship that continues today, sources say. As Brendan Bordelon noted last month, Sharpton has visited the White House at least 61 times since Obama took office.
The logs also show that often these meetings have been with either Valerie Jarrett or her staff, who have continued to help manage the Sharpton-Obama relationship. But in an interview with NRO, Sharpton downplayed both the number of meetings and the importance of his relationship with Jarrett.
The relationship with the president “is not an individual relationship,” Sharpton says, though he adds he’s “had a good working relationship with the Obama administration.” He continues: “I’ve never had a one-on-one with [President Obama] on civil rights. I’ve always had it as part of three or four of us.”
Of the 61 visits in the White House logs, Sharpton says: “If you’re looking at the fact that I’ve gone to receptions, I’ve gone to immigration meetings, I’ve gone to meetings on education, I’ve gone to meetings on civil rights — that’s not exceptional at all over six years. Are you serious? You’re talking less than a meeting a month, and that includes meetings in the Eisenhower Office Building on immigration, education,” he says. Later, he adds: “It’s not just one relationship. You’re taking about an administration. You’re not talking about a personal relationship.”
As for Jarrett, Sharpton says that while she’s a participant in many meetings, “I would not consider her a conduit any more than I would consider Arne Duncan a conduit on education or anyone else with immigration.”
But Jamal Watson, author of a forthcoming biography of Sharpton, tells me, “Valerie Jarrett has become an important ally to Al Sharpton and has become the conduit between the Obama administration and Sharpton and the civil-rights community.”
Long after Obama’s election and reelection, both the president and Sharpton continue to benefit from the relationship, Watson says.
“I think Sharpton helps to legitimize Obama and protect him against critics who claim he’s not black enough,” he explains, “while at the same time, Obama provides credibility to Al Sharpton against the critics who say he is racist and doesn’t have a track record in civil rights.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. This article was published originally on January 15, 2015.