Al Sharpton is a world-class bullshitter. In a devastating 1996 review in these pages, Jim Sleeper noted that Sharpton's first autobiography, Go and Tell Pharaoh, included lies about his age (36 at the time, not 38), his residence (Englewood, New Jersey, not Brooklyn, New York), and even his motivation for writing the book (Sharpton attributed it to his 1991 stabbing; Sleeper showed that Sharpton hatched the idea months before that). When Newsday alleged in 1988 that Sharpton had been an FBI informant, the reverend insisted that he had tapped his own phone in an independent effort to gather information on local drug dealers. When THE NEW REPUBLIC this week asked Sharpton's campaign how he could respect the NAACP's boycott of South Carolina while simultaneously renting hotel rooms in the state, his campaign explained that Sharpton wasn't actually paying for the rooms. In 1992, Sharpton told Sleeper, “In many ways society is totally a hustle from top to bottom.” And that creed still governs the reverend's work today.
Bullshitting is the mechanism Sharpton uses to escape unscathed from the moral train wrecks that dot his career. On “Meet the Press” in January, Tim Russert reminded the freshly reinvented presidential candidate of four episodes in his past: His 1987 conviction for defaming a man he accused of raping Tawana Brawley; his 1993 conviction for tax evasion; his 1995 incitement against a Jewish store owner in Harlem, which culminated in the racially motivated murder of seven of the store's employees; and his 2002 eviction from the Empire State Building for failing to pay his rent. Sharpton responded by implying racism and changing the subject: “I think you've got white candidates with worse backgrounds who—.” Russert interrupted to ask whom he meant. Sensing a dead end, Sharpton declared, “I'm not getting into name-calling," and changed the subject once again. “If you want to talk about background, talk about how a white male stabbed me at a nonviolent march. I forgave him, testified for him. That's somebody that brings America together,” he declared. Russert doggedly returned to his question, asking Sharpton, “Why not apologize for Tawana Brawley?” “To apologize for believing and standing with a woman—I think all of us need to take women's claims more seriously," Sharpton responded indignantly. “No apology for Tawana Brawley?” Russert tried one last time. “No apology for standing up for civil rights,” replied Sharpton.
That last answer is particularly revealing. According to Al Sharpton, the behavior of Al Sharpton is synonymous with the cause of civil rights, and therefore any criticism of Al Sharpton is, by definition, an attack on racial justice. By running for president, Sharpton is effectively asking the Democratic Party to bless that proposition. He knows that, by treating him as a legitimate candidate, the party is ratifying his self-coronation as the leader of black America. And, if the Democratic Party and the media accept him as the leader of black America, the post-Martin Luther King Jr., post-Jesse Jackson civil rights movement will become, in effect, whatever Sharpton says it is.
So far, the five legitimate Democratic candidates are helping Sharpton achieve his goal. Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Joseph Lieberman, for instance, have begun publicly joking about which of them the reverend might pick as his running mate. All involved see this affectionate banter as win-win. Sharpton wants legitimacy; the other candidates grant him legitimacy so he can't accuse them of racism. Were any one Democratic contender to slight Sharpton, he would instantly become the target of the reverend's ire, and the political mud- wrestling match that would ensue would lower his stature while his opponents looked on opportunistically.
The problem is that this strategy of appeasement—while wise for any given presidential candidate—is devastating for the party as a whole. First of all, it means that, by the end of the primaries, the most important black leader in the Democratic Party will be a man with a history of screwing the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson may have caused Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis headaches, but he didn't purposefully sabotage their campaigns. Sharpton, by contrast, endorsed Republican Al D'Amato in 1986 and all but endorsed George Pataki in 1994. Anyone who rules out the possibility that in August 2004 an aggrandized Sharpton will, after a private conversation with Karl Rove, issue a pained statement declaring that the Democratic nominee has betrayed the party's base and doesn't deserve the reverend's endorsement should have a conversation with Robert Abrams, Mario Cuomo, or Mark Green.
Second of all, the most important black leader in the Democratic Party will be a man who knows nothing, and has done nothing, beyond race. The intra-Democratic Party fights of the 1980s were, of course, racialized. But Jackson also became the standard bearer for the Democratic Party's left. And, as a result, by 1992—when Jerry Brown took up Jackson's mantle and black Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder ran as a centrist—the party's ideological conflicts were about something broader than race.
Sharpton, by contrast, has no real profile on any issue except police brutality. He hasn't shown the slightest hint of serious knowledge about, or serious interest in, health care, housing, or education. When Russert asked how he would balance the budget, Sharpton mentioned “administrative over-cost in various government services.” When asked how he would cut the defense budget, Sharpton said, “I've seen various reports where a lot of defense spending is buying three hundred-dollar pieces of furniture.”
But, most importantly, the most powerful black Democrat will be a man who eagerly trades on the moral resonance of the civil rights movement to justify the vilest, most self-aggrandizing behavior. Sharpton called Brawley's supposed rape “the latest in a series of outrages stretching back to Jamestown.” In his most recent book, Al on America, he writes, “Pundits ask me why not run for Congress or a local office. ... What they're really saying is, 'Why don't you stay in your place?' Why didn't Jackie Robinson stay in the Negro League?” If Sharpton comes to be seen as the primary inheritor of the civil rights tradition, that tradition could within a short period be divested of any public moral authority, which would be a historic tragedy.
On national security, and now increasingly on race, the Democratic Party has returned to the 1980s. And the lesson of that decade is that the party will not return from the wilderness until it confronts the internal forces that have put it there. If the Democrats confront Sharpton, they could well lose the White House in 2004. But, if they allow him to become the party's primary spokesman on race, they could forfeit it for a generation. What the Democrats need today is a caucus devoted to calling Al Sharpton the bullshitter he is. And the sooner that fight begins, the sooner it will end. As the reverend might say, “No justice, no peace.”
This article originally ran in the February 17, 2003, issue of the magazine.