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October 8, 2002 9:00 a.m.
Reverend Sharpton’s pre-campaign treatise.
Al on America, by Rev. Al Sharpton, with Karen Hunter. (Dafina Books, 283 pages, $27)
Two things we can safely predict for 2004: that the Rev. Al Sharpton will run for president, and that the Rev. Al Sharpton will not win. But winning is not Sharpton's game, as even a casual reading of his obligatory pre-campaign book, Al on America reveals. This is a pretty awful book, which places it squarely in the mainstream of the genre, but it is useful to politics watchers as a chronicle of a Democratic party train wreck foretold.
The Rotund Rev may be dumb, but he's no dummy. That is, Sharpton knows and cares less about presidential issues than your average college freshman, as this book painfully shows. But he knows and cares a great deal about Al Sharpton, and he is convinced that this presidential run will position himself as a power broker for black America, as Jesse Jackson was until very recently, despite never winning an election. In a startling bit of candor, Sharpton writes that it's not whether he wins, but how he loses that matters: "[Y]ou had better have the right guy who can still deliver for you, win or lose. If you have the wrong loser, you can walk away with nothing."
There's a campaign slogan for you: Sharpton: The Right Loser for Black America.
And, to absolutely no one's surprise, candidate Sharpton is first and fully for black America, with a few sops thrown to Hispanics and gays — though he starts out the book with catholic intentions. In a passage as tasteless as it is nonsensical, he writes: "[O]n September 11, my agenda, my platform became an agenda, a platform for all America." (You're thinking: The terrorists have won!) "When nineteen terrorists decided to turn our planes into missiles and attack the very fabric of our lives, America was forced to change; I was forced to change. It was no longer about black America or minority America. It's now about America."
That's the third paragraph in the introduction, and everything else that follows contradicts it. "Racism is still America's greatest problem," he asserts, and even blames America's racism for engendering foreign policy that makes people hate us. To Sharpton, even the use of the term "White House" is evidence of linguistic racism. The final chapter of Al on America, the one in which the candidate is expected to sum up his case, explicitly addresses black voters, to whom he'd been talking all along. Again, this is no surprise, but the ease with which he drops the pretense is noteworthy.
The first half of the book offers Sharpton's pensees on issues of the day. It's black progressive boilerplate, garnished with occasional kookery and presented without a semblance of sustained, fact-based argument. "The government has to come up with work programs," he says. There's no AIDS cure because of racism and homophobia. New chain stores coming to Harlem exemplify "exploitation and hidden agendas." He's for a "strong military," but there's racism in it too, and he would only use the armed forces "as a last resort." We need to "strengthen" the public schools, whatever that means. We need a constitutional amendment enfranchising children, prisoners, and non-citizen legal residents ("This dramatically expands the number of blacks, Hispanics and students eligible to vote," Sharpton helpfully explains). His section on foreign policy is limited to polemical travelogues about the four places overseas he's been: Cuba, the Middle East, Africa, and the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The far more interesting aspects of Al on America have to do with Sharpton's revelations about himself. He will never be an insider like his old mentor Jesse Jackson because he is far too unsophisticated, too "street," to move in elite circles. But Sharpton could easily launch himself as a troublemaker for the Democratic party because his faith in himself is boundless, his craving for personal power and self-aggrandizement vigorous, and his pride in cheesing off whitey a basic drive.
You best see Sharpton's hick vanity in his chapter on Cuba, which reads like the travelogue of a rube. He arrives in Havana amid an international communist confab. "There were people there from fifty-two nations, and to our surprise, many of them knew who I was and publicly welcomed me. They had followed our fight against police brutality and applauded our work." Sharpton is too awed to appreciate the irony of being told this while a guest of a police state.
The presidential hopeful goes on, unparodyable in his innocence abroad:To my surprise, the best fried chicken I have ever ate in my life (outside of my mama's) was in Havana. Cuba is very clean, and the only crime you could openly see is prostitution. You don't see a lot of dirt and crime. People even leave their doors unlocked there. It reminded me of the deep, deep South in the 1950s, where everyone greeted each other as they walked by. Even the cars are from the 1950s. ...It was like stepping into Mayberry with Andy Griffith. I expected Aunt Bea and Opie to come running out any minute.
Then Sharpton meets the dictator, and is mesmerized: "He was brilliant. He was absolutely awesome (and it takes a lot to impress me)." Sharpton is so busy talking to Castro that he and his entourage almost miss their plane. But the dictator has his personal security detail whisk them to the airport and escort them onto the airplane. "I sat in first class, and the pilot asked me to sit in the cockpit," gushes Sharpton. As Gomer Pyle used to say, "Gol-lee!"
Sharpton's instincts for power are equally crude. Early on, he praises leaders he considers exemplary. He includes in that number Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan, and Louis Farrakhan. What Sharpton admires is the power and respect these men gathered unto themselves. He is utterly uninterested in whether that power was used for moral purposes.
The second half of the book is even more revealing along these lines, and is actually the only part that reads like Sharpton put his heart into it. What are we to make of a presidential candidate whose chapter-length account of how he played "kingmaker" in the 2001 New York City mayor's race — offering insider details that can't possibly be of interest to readers outside the city — runs five times longer than his chapter outlining his views on the military? I'll tell you what: He's showing his true hand, what he really wants out of this run for president: a seat at the table in national Democratic politics. By pointing out in detail how he screwed over Mark Green, the white Democratic nominee for mayor, thus costing the Democrats the mayoralty, Sharpton is putting the national party on alert: Don't you dare disrespect me, or I'll make you pay.
Sharpton, 48, who grew up fatherless, speaks with sincere affection of the two father-figure older men he hero-worships: the singer James Brown, for whom young Sharpton was a road manager, and Harlem's playboy preacher, the late U.S. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. What Sharpton learned from both men was the conviction that a man should make it in the world on his own terms, no matter what anyone else says. Writes Sharpton: "Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., had power. He had the inside track. He could always get where he wanted, but he never lost that defiance. He always did it his way. And while some people said it was his downfall, I always admired that about him."
Plainly, Sharpton sees himself following in the same path. Two of his final chapters, however, show how impossible his defiant pride has made that. Three scandals have dogged Sharpton's career in New York politics, and have ensured that many people will never see him as anything more than a demagogue. There was his role in the black-led Crown Heights pogroms against Jews, and the part he played in attacking a Jewish landlord (called by Sharpton on his radio show a "white interloper"), whose store was later firebombed after a black racist murdered employees. Sharpton tries to explain away his involvement in these cases; he's no more convincing now than he ever was.
Most of all, there's the Tawana Brawley hoax, the one that launched Sharpton's career as a nationally notorious racial rabble-rouser. The Rotund Rev knows Tawana is the millstone around his neck, but he refuses to lose his defiance. Despite having a court judgment returned against him for slandering a white prosecutor in the case, Sharpton still defends Brawley, but then goes off into cloud-cuckoo land by bringing in Gary Condit, Teddy Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and by comparing himself to Jesus Christ being offered the world if he would only bow down and worship the Devil. Somehow, one is quite confident in judging that Tawana Brawley will follow candidate Sharpton wherever he may go.
He won't go far, obviously, but he just might go far enough to suit his purposes. Al Sharpton is going to lose the Democratic nomination in 2004, but in the still-unlikely event Tawana's spiritual adviser emerges from the nomination fight as the right loser — that is, a person who must be dealt with so as not to antagonize black voters — the big winner will be the Republican party. It's impossible for a conservative to put down Al On America without looking forward to the Democratic primaries.
-- Anonymous, October 08, 2002
Sounds like a good basis for a great stage comedy. LOL
-- Anonymous, October 08, 2002