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.
The problem with the alleged New Sharpton is that he is unsettlingly like the old one. In the tradition of Yasir Arafat, he speaks one way to his core followers on the street, and another to the public at large. If he is not yet a full-blown media darling, he is fast becoming one. Reporters get a kick out of him, finding him exciting, personable, and a joy to quote. As the liberal New York Post columnist Jack Newfield has pointed out, he is “dangerous because he is so likable.” And only rarely is Sharpton held accountable for his offenses, both past and ongoing. The tendency to forget, or to brush aside, is close to overpowering. The time may be right, then, for a little walk down Memory Lane, as unpleasant as that may be. What manner of man have the brightest lights in the Democratic party come to accept? When they wrap their arms around Al Sharpton, what, really, are they embracing?
A Record of Hate and Pain
No one should suppose that Sharpton is without admirable qualities. He has not attracted thousands of followers on charismatic racism alone. He has daring, tenacity, and a gift for leadership, even if repeatedly abused. He is also an American original — a self-created (and re-created) man; a go-getter; an achiever, of sorts. Born 46 years ago in Brooklyn, he was relatively middle class, until his father walked out, when he became poor. He likes to say that he agitated from the beginning: “I yelled when I was hungry. I yelled when I was wet. I yelled when all those little black bourgeois babies stayed dignified and quiet. I learned before I got out of the maternity ward that you’ve got to holler like hell sometimes to get what you want.”
When he was four, according to the legend, he began to preach. Jesse Jackson, who became a mentor, has described him as “a child prodigy.” When he was about 14, Sharpton hooked up with one of the many Jackson operations, and at 16 started the first of his own: the National Youth Movement. He was also drawn to Adam Clayton Powell, the colorful and crooked congressman from Harlem. Shortly before he died, in 1972, he had some final words for young Sharpton (in The Rev’s telling): “These yellow Uncle Toms are taking over the blacks in New York. Don’t you stop fighting. If you want to do something for Adam, get rid of these Uncle Toms.” Later, Sharpton came under the wing of James Brown, the soul singer, who acted as a father to him (“James Brown was my father; Jesse Jackson was my teacher”). When he at last took to full-time rabble-rousing, he did so with a ferocity, lashing out at “faggots,” “cocktail-sip Negroes,” and even black Marxists — those who carried “that German cracker’s book under their arms.”
He caught a break in 1984, when Bernhard Goetz, the subway gunman and face of white backlash, shot a gang of youthful muggers. Sharpton campaigned for Goetz’s head. He caught a further break two years later, when the incident known as “Howard Beach” occurred: A young black man, Michael Griffith, was chased to death by a gang of white thugs. Sharpton was developing a modus operandi: He would call victims or their families — or defendants and theirs — to offer his services, which included cash, legal counsel, and the like. Sharpton himself would serve as “adviser” and “spokesman.” He quickly earned the sobriquet “Reverend 911,” responding to any black-white emergency. Accused of being an ambulance chaser, he retorted: “No: I am the ambulance.”
His greatest infamy came in 1987, with the Tawana Brawley hoax. As the journalist Nat Hentoff has put it, this is Sharpton’s “Chappaquiddick.” To recall the horrid affair: A girl named Tawana Brawley, after staying away from home for several days, smeared herself with dog feces, scrawled racial epithets on her body, and hopped into a garbage bag. Then she claimed that six white men, including a police officer, had raped and otherwise tormented her. All of America sat up in alarm. Bill Cosby, who was at the height of his fame and popularity, offered a large monetary award for information leading to arrests. And Al Sharpton, of course, was on the spot. Acting as the Brawley family’s adviser, he urged them not to cooperate with the authorities, including the state attorney general, Robert Abrams. To cooperate with Abrams, he said, would be “to sit down with Mr. Hitler.” A Sharpton sidekick, Alton Maddox, added, “Robert Abrams, you are no longer going to masturbate looking at Tawana Brawley’s picture.”
One of those whom Sharpton and his partners accused was an assistant district attorney, Steven Pagones, who was, needless to say, innocent (the crime never took place). After he was cleared, he held a press conference, which Sharpton, in his theatrical fashion, attempted to crash. “Your accuser has arrived!” he bellowed. Sharpton had said before, “We stated openly that Steven Pagones did it. If we’re lying, sue us, so we can go into court with you and prove you did it. Sue us — sue us right now.” Oddly enough, Pagones did. He spent a decade of his life pursuing a defamation case against Sharpton and his accomplices, finally winning that case one glorious, cleansing day in July of 1998. His life had been a hell — of death threats, illnesses, and assorted other agonies. He said to an interviewer in 1997, “I know that Sharpton doesn’t care how I feel. [But] I will follow him and make sure he pays up as long as I live. Wherever he goes, he’ll find me waiting for him.” Sharpton now owes Pagones $65,000 in damages, money that the victim will probably never see. At the heart of any case against Sharpton — and against the notion of a New Sharpton — is his persecution of Steven Pagones. It has been, to use the word for which there is no substitute, evil. He has never apologized for his deeds, and nothing piques him more than to be reminded of them. “If I saved the Pope’s life,” he has sniped, “the media would ask me about Brawley.” In soft moments, he has come close to apologizing (“I have regrets”). In harder ones, he is angrily defiant (“Never, ever!”). Liberal journalists — white — patiently explain that, for a black leader, an apology is a complicated matter: a question of politics and tactics, not of right and wrong. As Sharpton himself has said, to apologize would be “all about submission.” White folk “are asking me to grovel. They want black children to say that they forced a black man coming out of the hardcore ghetto to his knees.” Jesse Jackson gained nothing by apologizing for his “Hymietown” remark, so why should he? Only last year, Sharpton said of his role in the Brawley case, “If I had to do it again, I’d do it in the same way.”
There was more, of course — always more. In the spring of 1989, the Central Park “wilding” occurred. That was the monstrous rape and beating of a young white woman, known to most of the world as “the jogger.” The hatred heaped on her by Sharpton and his claque is almost impossible to fathom, and wrenching to review. Sharpton insisted — against all evidence — that the attackers were innocent. They were, he said, modern Scottsboro Boys, trapped in “a fit of racial hysteria.” Unspeakably, he and his people charged that the victim’s own boyfriend had raped and beaten her to the point of death. Outside the courthouse, they chanted, “The boyfriend did it! The boyfriend did it!” They denounced the victim as “Whore!” They screamed her name, over and over (because most publications refused to print it, though several black-owned ones did). Sharpton brought Tawana Brawley to the trial one day, to show her, he said, the difference between white justice and black justice. He arranged for her to meet the jogger’s attackers, whom she greeted with comradely warmth. In another of his publicity stunts, he appealed for a psychiatrist to examine the victim. “It doesn’t even have to be a black psychiatrist,” he said, generously. He added: “We’re not endorsing the damage to the girl — if there was this damage.”
The horrible roll continues. August of 1991 saw “Crown Heights,” the period of madness that began when a car driven by a Hasidic Jew careened out of control, killing a seven-year-old black child, Gavin Cato. Riots broke out. A rabbinical student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was lynched. Over a hundred others were injured. The city was on the verge of breaking apart. And here is what Al Sharpton had to say, in one of the most vile orations of his career, noxious with slanders familiar and novel:
The world will tell us that [Gavin Cato] was killed by accident. . . . What type of city do we have that would allow politics to rise above the blood of innocent babies? . . . Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights. . . . All we want to say is what Jesus said: If you offend one of these little ones, you got to pay for it. No compromise. Pay for your deeds. . . . It’s no accident that we know we should not be run over. We are the royal family on the planet. We are the original man. We gazed into the stars and wrote astrology. We had a conversation and that became philosophy. . . . We will win because we are right. God is on our side.
Sharpton’s rhetoric could also be rather less high-flown. “If the Jews want to get it on,” he said, “tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”
So: When is the New Sharpton supposed to have emerged? Later in 1991, when, during a march in Brooklyn, he was stabbed in the chest, by a drunken young white. One of those who sped to his bedside was David Dinkins, then mayor, and the symbol of the black establishment that Sharpton despised and would soon replace. “I always tease Mayor Dinkins,” he now likes to say, “that I looked up and thought I had died and gone to hell.” In a display of magnanimity, Sharpton forgave his assailant and recommended leniency for him in court.
The supposedly sobered Sharpton quickly jumped into the electoral realm, running for the Senate in 1992 against a field he described as “recycled white trash.” He finished third out of four Democrats, beating Elizabeth Holtzman, the renowned former congresswoman. Two years later, he again ran for the Senate, taking 26 percent of the vote from the incumbent, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. His most striking political showing came in 1997, when he ran for mayor. He garnered a full 32 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, almost forcing a runoff with the winner, Ruth Messinger (who went on to be defeated by Giuliani). All the while, Sharpton’s power and influence — the sense of his legitimacy — grew. Once he had referred to Dinkins as “that nigger whore turning tricks in City Hall.” By 1993, however, Dinkins could say, “I’m the mayor of New York, but Sharpton is the leader. If we didn’t have an Al Sharpton, we would have to create one. Imagine if Al wasn’t around. What would have happened to victims? Who would have raised our issues? Thank God for Martin [Luther King], thank God for Adam [Clayton Powell], thank God for Al.” The torch had effectively been passed.
But the torching, so to speak, continued. In 1995 — four years into the putative New Sharpton — there was another, fatal case in which Sharpton had a guilty hand: Freddy’s Fashion Mart. In Harlem, a white store owner — no, worse: a Jewish one — was accused of driving a black store owner out of business. At one of the many rallies meant to scare the Jewish owner away, Sharpton charged that “there is a systemic and methodical strategy to eliminate our people from doing business off 125th Street. I want to make it clear . . . that we will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business.” Sharpton’s colleague, Morris Powell, said of the Jewish owner — Sharpton’s “white interloper” — “We’re going to see that this cracker suffers. Reverend Sharpton is on it.” Three months later, one of the protesters, Roland Smith, stormed Freddy’s with a pistol, screaming, “It’s on now: All blacks out!” In addition to shooting, he burned the place down. Eight people died. Sharpton now faced a PR problem, a bump on his road to full respectability. In a manner both Sharptonian and Clintonian, he denied having even spoken at a rally at all. When tapes surfaced, he asked, “What’s wrong with denouncing white interlopers?” Eventually, he decided to apologize — but only for saying “white,” not “interloper.”
SHAME AND HONOR
Most people, it seems — or at least most elites — have made a kind of peace with Sharpton. Two years ago, former mayor Ed Koch appeared on a cooking show with The Rev — just a pair of twinkle-eyed, cuddly New York pols, wearing aprons. But the Old Sharpton never fails to spring back. Around the time he was cooking with Koch, Sharpton was haranguing a Harlem crowd with Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the country’s foremost specialist in Hitlerian rhetoric. (Free sample: “Who’s pimping the world? The hairy hands of the Zionist in the world.”) Pressed slightly on Muhammad, Sharpton said, “I have no problem with Khalid. My problem is Giuliani. It’s not Khalid who is talking hate; it’s Rudy Giuliani.” As far as Sharpton was concerned, Muhammad was “an articulate and courageous brother.”
And yet, much of the world is disposed to cut Sharpton miles of slack. With his charm and wit, he is seductive to many, even melting. Every reporter has a personal archive of hilarious and endearing morsels from The Rev’s lips. What can they matter, though, in the face of the tremendous harm he has done? Last year, after another American delegation to Havana, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, said, “For the life of me, I just don’t know how Castro can seem cute after forty years of torturing people.” Sharpton, to be sure, is not Castro; but he has a lot to answer for. Eric Fettmann, an editorial writer and columnist for the New York Post, finds Sharpton anything but cute. He is a kind of one-man truth-and-memory squad against Sharpton. The Rev’s greatest hoax, he argues, is not Tawana Brawley, but the New Sharpton. The Rev has, in fact, sued the Post, for damaging his reputation and inhibiting his fund-raising. The paper — delighted not least by the prospect of a legal proceeding that would open Sharpton’s (dubious) books — editorialized, “Bring It On, Rev. Al.” A tragic aspect of Sharpton is that, given his talents, he could be a force for good. When the verdict in last month’s Amadou Diallo trial came down, going against Sharpton and his protesters, he said, “Let not one brick be thrown.” This was probably the most statesmanlike utterance of his career. But if Sharpton has shed Saul for Paul, he has provided scant evidence of it. Seldom does he resist the demagogic, the hatemongering, temptation. He is, for the most part, proudly unrepentant. And, oh, how he hates any cold-eyed look at his life and times. “They always try to scandalize you,” he has complained (echoing an old spiritual). But “they,” sadly, do not try to scandalize him enough. Perhaps even worse, they do nothing to scandalize those top Democrats who have bent to Sharpton’s feet, raising him higher than ever.