Politics & Policy

Al Sharpton at the White House

(Getty Images)
It sometimes seems as if he spends more time there than anywhere else. Why?

This, the tail end of 2014, is Al Sharpton’s moment.

Despite the firebrand minister’s shrinking physical stature, his presence on the national stage has never loomed larger. From Ferguson to Cleveland to Staten Island, black men dying at the hands of police have catapulted America’s racial obsession to new heights — carrying Sharpton along with it.

He stands solemnly with Michael Brown’s family at televised press conferences. He appears alongside Eric Garner’s grieving widow on Meet the Press. He delivers nightly sermons on race from his prime-time perch at MSNBC. Though the rehabilitation is far from perfect, it’s a far cry from the days of Tawana Brawley, Freddie’s Fashion Mart, and “white interlopers.”

How to explain the strange new respect accorded to Sharpton? Start with the White House.

Considered politically toxic by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Sharpton has been enthusiastically embraced by President Obama. He has bragged about helping to pick a new attorney general and communed with the current one. In fact, a much-quoted Politico profile last summer described Sharpton as Obama’s “go-to man on race.”

Given the reports of phone calls and text messages frequently exchanged between Sharpton and top Obama officials, a complete accounting of the relationship may be impossible. But a perusal of the White House visitor log — which shows 61 visits by Sharpton since 2009 — illustrates the extraordinary access Sharpton has had to the president and his top advisers.

Thirty-four of Sharpton’s visits were for White House events like high-profile nominations, bill signings, and soirées. Some, like the February 9, 2010, “Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement,” seem well within Sharpton’s wheelhouse. But many more — including a March 18, 2010, signing ceremony for a “jobs bill” and a May 19, 2010, event honoring visiting Mexican president Felipe Calderón — leave one wondering where Sharpton’s expertise enters the picture. Others — such as the Obamas’ 2011 Super Bowl party, small-scale movie screenings in February 2011 and April 2013, and especially the president’s birthday party in August 2011 — speak to a close personal relationship between Sharpton and the first family.

But a chance to rub elbows with D.C.’s glitterati explains only around half of Sharpton’s trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On his National Action Network website, Sharpton cites a poll showing that “one in every four African-Americans say that [he] is the person that speaks most for them.” That statistic no doubt factors heavily in President Obama’s decision to routinely summon Sharpton to the White House, seeking his advice and perspective on issues deemed important to the black community.

Sharpton has participated in ten of these highly publicized sit-downs, with both the White House and Sharpton himself pushing news of the conclaves to national media outlets. Sharpton first sat in the Oval Office on May 7, 2009, to discuss equality in education with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. On February 3, 2010, Sharpton and three other civil-rights leaders met with Obama on job creation; on April 19, 2011, the topic was immigration. July 2012 saw another high-profile education meeting, and a post-reelection confab with MSNBC progressives was held on December 4. On-the-record meetings in 2013 and 2014 focused on voting rights and civil-rights initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper.

These symbolic meetings were widely publicized by the Obama administration. But not every Sharpton visit to the White House saw the light of day.

There is no media documentation of Sharpton’s remaining 17 visits to the Obama White House — the visitor log is the sole record, and it almost uniformly fails to provide any reason for the meetings. It does, however, provide key insights into the Sharpton–Obama dynamic.

Sharpton met one-on-one with President Obama only once, on August 26, 2013. That same day, Sharpton and a small group of civil-rights leaders met with the president to discuss black enrollment in Obamacare. That Sharpton likely received private marching orders on the president’s signature legislation shows the confidence the White House placed in his clout with African-Americans.

With the exception of another one-on-one West Wing meeting in August 2010 — this time with top adviser David Axelrod — most other visits included Obama’s secretive Chicago consigliere, Valerie Jarrett, or her staff. Described in a 2008 piece in New York magazine as “the woman who taught Sharpton to lower his voice,” Jarrett is widely viewed as his gateway into the White House.

That’s reflected in the visitor log. Although Sharpton met with Jarrett herself only four times between 2010 and 2012, he regularly meets one-on-one and in small groups with top people in the White House public-relations office, which Jarrett heads. He met seven times with public-relations adviser Heather Foster, once with Jarrett’s assistant, Kathy Branch, and another time with the office’s deputy director, Buffy Wicks. There were also various meetings with a handful of other Jarrett underlings.

Some meetings — such as the one held the day of the Martin Luther King Memorial dedication — indicate direct Sharpton involvement in the White House’s planning of official government functions. This is bolstered by a handful of other meetings that took place one or two days before larger White House events at which Sharpton was a guest.

Others — such as one held September 30, 2013, the day that excerpts of Sharpton’s new book made it into the media — may show a bit of self-promotion on his part. After the Democrats’ 2010 midterm “shellacking,” Sharpton exhorted his Facebook followers to “clear our heads, regroup and refocus and get ready for the next round.” The next day he was at the White House, meeting with associate public-relations director Miti Sathe in the Executive Office Building.

After a one-on-one with Heather Foster in the West Wing on May 31, 2013, Sharpton trumpeted new jobs numbers the White House had spent all day promoting. “Folks, forget the side show. This is real promise,” he said. “The deficit, down $800 billion since the president took office. The jobs are continuing to come back, 38 straight months of private-sector job growth.”

An August 4, 2014, West Wing meeting with White House communications official Dominique Mann coincided with Sharpton’s announcement of a march “seeking justice” for Eric Garner and the publication of an op-ed decrying Garner’s killing. That was also the day that an interview with Eric Holder was published in which the attorney general proudly declared his “activist” intentions and spoke of the “racial issues” his Justice Department must confront.

Regardless of the specific reasons behind the private meetings, it is clear they all involved coordinating messages to the public . And it appears that Valerie Jarrett’s staff, if not Jarrett herself, was involved in most of them.

The latest visitor logs were released in August 2014, just as the Ferguson protests were picking up steam. That inevitably renders this review of Sharpton’s history with the Obama administration incomplete. But as racial animus grips American politics ever tighter, he will surely remain a fixture at the White House for the next two years.

— Brendan Bordelon is an editorial associate at NRO.

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