The Sharpton Image
This is the first article I have written on Al Sharpton in our coverage of the Democratic presidential candidates during the primary season about to start.
George W. Bush found himself in December of 1999 as one of six candidates in the New Hampshire Republican Primary campaign. In an article dated September 14, Bush is described by David Broder as then being "on autopilot" and an uncommanding presence, unlike his later personna as pResident.
Broder said that it's too early to rule out any of the current Democratic candidates, citing the Bush performance as example. Broder felt that all but one of the Democratic candidates showed no ability to "take charge" when confronted by supporters of Lyndon LaRouoshe at the Congressional Black Caucus debate. The one who did show this ability? Al Sharpton.
Sharpton clearly had shamed some of the troublemakers. More important, he demonstrated to the whole political world what is lacking in the rest of the Democratic field -- the spontaneity that marks a winner.
I had two flashbacks. One was to the presidential debate in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood like statues at their lecterns, afraid to move, to converse or even to smile, for the long minutes it took to repair the audio feed from the TV studio. That inability to deal with the unexpected shadowed both their presidencies.
The other memory was the 1980 debate in Nashua, N.H., where the first George Bush and Ronald Reagan were on stage when suddenly four other Republican contenders (who had not been invited to participate) walked in. Bush simply froze. Reagan -- who was part of the plot -- welcomed them, and when the moderator tried to cut Reagan off, he delivered the line, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green." He got the name wrong, but by taking command when his opponent was tongue-tied, he virtually ended the Bush challenge.
The take-command reflex is a mighty useful trait when you are hoping to run against the commander in chief. That Sharpton is the only Democrat to display it does not augur well for the party's chances.
So what other strengths might Al Sharpton have? He appears to be able to deal with the media. This incident shows more of the quality that Broder, nominally a conservative Republican columnist, appears to admire in Sharpton.
Almost two weeks after the CBC debate, he was interviewed by Stephen Colbert, a correspondent from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." In a typical "Daily Show" manner, Colbert tried to toy with Sharpton, who was able to go with the flow. "He's an excellent sport," Colbert said later. "In some ways, he turned our jokes into serious arguments better than anyone we've had on the show."
So what else is there to say for Sharpton? He opposes war with Iraq. He says that President Bush's warnings about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are "a mass political distraction" from a weak economy. Sharpton also opposes cutting taxes, whether on a grand scale like President Bush or the smaller scale favored by some of his Democratic rivals. "It didn't work for Ronald Reagan," he said. "It won't work now."
So does Sharpton have weak spots? Yes, many. But there's one in particular - in two words: Tawana Brawley
In 1987, a New York teen named Tawana Brawley claimed that she had been abducted and raped by a local prosecutor - charges that were later proved false. Sharpton's presence exploded onto America's TV screens across the country when he loudly announced himself as her advocate. A court later ordered Sharpton to pay $65,000 in a defamation lawsuit filed by one of those falsely accused.
Though he has worked hard to make supporters forget the incident, Sharpton's public image is still haunted by the debacle.
"We are friends," former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said in an interview Thursday, "but I have told him repeatedly that unless he repudiates the Tawana Brawley hoax he will never be a crossover leader that people can follow."
Sharpton, though, is afforded a level of respect that some thought he might never earn, said Paul Colford, a media reporter for the New York Daily News.
"There seems to be less of a reflex in the media to dredge up, for example, the Tawana Brawley soap opera, once a truly divisive story in the life of New York City, every time Sharpton is mentioned," Colford said in an interview this week. "That's not to say Sharpton is now viewed as a statesman, but he's seen a more mature leader than the media may have given him credit for, in the '80s and such, when he was making his name locally with Brawley and other hot button stories."
Another issue which seems to haunt Sharpton is a perceived anti-Semitism. In a 1995 statement more volatile than Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" debacle, Sharpton criticized the Jewish owner of a Harlem clothing store as a "white interloper." Weeks later, an arsonist torched the store, killing eight people.
In an article dated 11/13/03, Larry Elder takes Sharpton to task for these events:
[W]ho appointed this race-baiter as the moral arbiter of the Democratic Party? Sharpton once denounced Jews as "diamond merchants," and called whites who wished to move into Harlem "interlopers." For those remarks, Sharpton apologized. But he never got around to apologizing for falsely accusing a former New York district attorney of raping Tawana Brawley in a case that a New York grand jury called fraudulent.
Sharpton says he stood up for a frightened young woman, and rejects any suggestion that he did something wrong or ought to apologize.
His supporters agree. "I'd rather have someone stand up with me when no one else will stand with me," said Paulette Wiley, director of an African-American organization in Des Moines. "I like a man who will take a stand."
However, Sharpton's rivals will be asked eventually whether they support that position or repudiate it. It will be a test, said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, in Des Moines, of how they can appeal both to Sharpton's supporters and to independent white voters who might not like his brand of racial politics.
Recalling a comment from the late Martin Luther King, he said he was more a thermostat than a thermometer. "I didn't come to measure the temperature of the room," he said. "I came to change the temperature of the room." Before announcing his candidacy for president, he wrote in his book, "Al on America," that "presidential politics has become ... an exclusive club for white males, of a certain income, of a certain age." He said he would bring diversity of views and color to the blandly uniform line-up of Democratic candidates. "Without me in the race," he said, "it will be part of the exclusive club picture again."
Sharpton doesn't care if he makes other Democrats uncomfortable. For example, he called retired Gen. Wesley Clark "the flavor of the month" and he suggested that Sen. Joseph Lieberman would not beat President Bush in November 2004. At the Black Caucus debate, Sharpton told Wesley Clark, who only recently declared himself a Democrat, "Don't be defensive about just joining the party. It's better to be a Democrat who's a real Democrat than a lot of Democrats up here who have been acting like Republicans all along." Sharpton says that the Democratic Party has become a wannabe version of the Republican Party, resounding its issues of war, taxes and crime. "You have a party of elephants with donkey overcoats," he said. "There needs to be a progressive wing of the party."
"Sharpton is not in position to go very far," said Goldford. "But Sharpton IS in position to hold the party hostage."
Sharpton isn't the first candidate to urge Democrats to tilt left; rival Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, has campaigned as an outspoken liberal for months. But Sharpton is the first African-American in the race, and that gives him extra standing, because African-Americans are one of the party's most influential groups. They could make up as much as 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina, one of the early, pivotal states in next year's nominating season. They voted at least 90 percent for Al Gore in 2000.
It is clear, however, that Sharpton resonates with many African-Americans. And if he fares well, he could emerge as a leader of black Democrats and a national power broker, much as Jesse Jackson did two decades ago. Sharpton noted that Jackson hadn't held office prior to his run for president in 1984 and 1988. And while Jackson didn't win the nomination or the White House, Sharpton said, his strong showing helped pave the way for Ron Brown, the Democratic National Committee's first black chairman, and Doug Wilder, the Virginian who became the first African-American to be elected governor in U.S. history.
Preaching at the predominantly black Union Baptist Church in Des Moines recently, Sharpton brought people to their feet repeatedly, blending political criticism of Bush with blunt talk about black culture and self-reliance. "We're all blaming someone else for being down," he said. "Even if you're not responsible for being down, you're responsible for getting up."
"He's a great orator," said Iowa state Rep. Wayne Ford. "He's dealing with issues none of the other candidates will deal with. People are very excited."
So let's look at what issues excites people - his platform:
Raise issues that would otherwise be overlooked, for example, affirmative action, anti-death penalty policy, African and Caribbean policy.
Affirmative action is certainly under assault, and the death penalty has caused serious doubts even among conservatives. Sharpton opposes the death penalty and wants prisons to emphasize correcting behavior rather than punishing it. "I'm the only one in the race who is anti-death penalty," he sais. But what about affirmative action and African and Caribbean policy? I haven't found much yet.
Increase political consciousness and awareness. Stimulate more people to get involved in the political process. Increase voter registration. Fulfill American democracy by supporting voting rights or statehood for the 600,000 disenfranchised citizens of the District of Columbia.
All laudable goals, but how to achieve these? I haven't found much yet.
Declare the RIGHT TO VOTE A HUMAN RIGHT and supporting H.J.Res. 28, a constitutional amendment. Declare EDUCATION A HUMAN RIGHT and supporting H.J. Res. 29, a constitutional amendment. Declare HEALTH CARE A HUMAN RIGHT and supporting H.J. Res. 30, a constitutional amendment. Rejuvenate the idea of putting AN EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT FOR WOMEN (ERA) in the Constitution and supporting H.J.Res. 31, a constitutional amendment.
More laudable goals, but the wording of these amendment proposals is too sparse to be of much use. Take H.J.Res. 31 as an example:
(1) equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex; and (2) reproductive rights for women under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State.
Leaves a lot loophole room, doesn't it? The term "reproductive rights" needs desperately to be defined! Otherwise, it's a buzz phrase that will set off incredible opposition as "promoting abortion".
Strengthen our REAL national security by fighting for human rights, the rule of law, and economic justice at home and abroad.
And next he'll come out for Truth, Justice, and the American Way!
There's nothing wrong with these platform planks, but there's nothing here that addresses issues that will resonate with the majority of Americans. There's nothing here on the deficit, on taxation, on foreign policy, on the trade deficit, on jobs, etc. As Walter Mondale asked back in 1984, where's the beef?
"If we keep going to the Super Bowl with the same team, we're going to get the same results," Sharpton once said. But the team which goes to the Super Bowl has a successful playbook, and this Sharpton team doesn't.
So If I were asked, I would have to say that Sharpton is vying to become the next Jesse Jackson as cited above. It's the only thing that makes any sense in light of the serious deficiencies of Team Sharpton. As the head of a major and important voting bloc within the Democratic Party, and with little success by the party in motivating Hispanics or reclaiming Whites from the GOP, his importance grows.
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