An amazing thing has happened in New York, and in Democratic politics: Al Sharpton has become King. He is Mr. Big, The Man to See, the straw that stirs the drink. Nothing has made that clearer than the prelude to the New York primary, and the budding New York Senate race. They come in a steady parade to him, even if they show flutters of reluctance: Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton. Everyone refers to this as “kissing his ring”; at times, Democrats seem willing to kiss even more. Not long ago, he was a demagogue, a race-baiter, a menace — and acknowledged as such, by all but a fringe. Day and night, he worked to make an always difficult city — New York — even more difficult, more tense. Now, however, he practically rules. He is a kind of Establishment. His record — as galling as any in our politics — is overlooked, excused, or shrugged off. It is to him that every (Democratic) knee must bow.
And another amazing thing: no penalty. Democratic bigs seem to pay no penalty whatever for their embrace of Sharpton. George W. Bush is worse off for Bob Jones University.
The Kiss of Respect
Sharpton — or “The Rev,” as he is known among his fans — is nothing if not mindful of his status; he must know, therefore, that his two visits to the White House last year were milestones for him. One visit was for a conference on police brutality; the other was for a ceremony honoring the New York Yankees (“I don’t think Al has ever been to a Yankee game in his life,” confided a friend of his to an interviewer). The more Mrs. Clinton becomes a New Yorker, and a New York politician, the friendlier the White House is to Sharpton. Last November, when the First Lady was dithering about whether to run at all, Sharpton announced that his patience was “running thin”; he wondered whether Mrs. Clinton was “too scared and too intimidated and too much of a lackey to challenge” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, long a Sharpton foe. In due course, Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy, and made the pilgrimage to Sharpton headquarters.
Bill Bradley needed no prodding. A self-styled Great White Father of black America, he was always eager for Sharpton’s blessing, meeting with him early. He was pleased to intone Sharpton’s threat-laden slogan, “No justice, no peace.” He courted The Rev with breathtaking, unembarrassed ardor. After their get-together in August, Sharpton said to the press, “Mr. Bradley had a very public meeting, answered all of the questions. I think he was very impressive.” Outside of Sharpton’s offices, however, not everything was harmony. Bill Perkins, a black city councilman, was leaving the meeting when he was confronted by a mob, supportive chiefly of the hate-spewing Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a Sharpton ally. They hurled charges of “Uncle Tom!” and warned that (relatively) temperate politicians like Perkins should “be killed.” Such is the atmosphere you enter when you consort with Sharpton, even in his present “mainstream” mode. Bradley is not known to have expressed a word of concern. Out in Iowa, he did say, “I don’t agree with Al Sharpton on everything, but I think he has to be given respect.” Of course.
Slowest of all to pay homage to Sharpton — but, nevertheless, in time — was Al Gore. Shortly after Mrs. Clinton’s visit, Sharpton let it be known that he would not wait for the vice president indefinitely. It would be “strange,” he said, if Gore declined to “show respect for the community” (in Sharpton’s mind, he and “the community” are one). Within a couple of weeks, Gore did indeed huddle with Sharpton, in the Upper East Side home of Karenna Gore Schiff, his daughter. His staff initially denied that Sharpton was with the Gores, only later admitting the truth. Similarly, Gore managed not to be photographed with The Rev — an example, we may assume, of the famous Gore caution.
Then came the big debate, staged at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Sharpton had demanded it. When the Gore camp appeared to hesitate, he snapped, “Clearly, we need a response by the end of the week.” Gore, it goes without saying, was delighted to oblige Sharpton. The Man had called, and both Democratic candidates came running. It was a high moment in Sharpton’s dizzying career.
New York, you could argue, is in the midst of a broad Sharpton Moment. He is not only at the center of Democratic politics, but key to the very life of the city — orchestrating protests against the police, turning the temperature up or down on racial antagonism, as he wishes, and generally acting like the mayor of black New York. For several years now, there has been a debate over whether there is a “New Sharpton” — a more moderate, less hateful, more constructive one. He is said by his liberal defenders — and occasionally by himself — to have “grown” (a word usually applied to conservative politicians who migrate left). Bill Bradley, for one, has endorsed this view. Certainly, Sharpton gives appearances of having gone respectable. There he is with Chris Matthews on Hardball, talking — and not unreasonably — about “the Moynihan wing” and “the Sharpton wing” of the New York Democratic party. And there he is with Charlie Gibson on Good Morning America, sitting next to former mayor David Dinkins. Weird times, these: Dinkins now seems like Sharpton’s mascot.