The Magazine

The Confessions of Al Sharpton

From the February 23, 2004, issue: Running for president to escape the shadow of Jesse Jackson

Feb 23, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 23 • By MATT LABASH
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I love to do my thing / Ha . . . and I don't need, no one else / Sometimes I feel so nice, good God / I jump back, I wanna kiss myself.--James Brown

Columbia, S.C.

WHILE MANY REPORTERS like to cover frontrunner campaigns, I've always favored no-hopers. Losers are more vulnerable, accessible and desperate, meaning they reveal rather than conceal. Plus, it is always perverse fun to watch a man's id hit the end of its leash, just to see how far it snaps back.

That's how I found myself in South Carolina in early February, for what many were billing as Al Sharpton's Last Stand, or, to be more precise, his First Stand, since stand-wise, he hadn't made any. Sharpton runs on his own clock, the time zone of which remains a mystery to his revolving-door schedulers. "Rev," as his staffers call him, has missed a plane to a televised presidential debate, never showed up to a confab in which he was supposed to net some rare endorsements, and even kept the Dalai Lama cooling his heels. So at majority-black Dreher High School, where Sharpton is set to launch Black History Month, smart reporters observe what could be called the Hour Rule: At any scheduled Sharpton event, it is wise to show up 60 minutes late. Doing so gives you time to arrange your newsgathering utensils, to acclimate yourself, and perhaps to get a snack before Sharpton himself shows up 30 minutes later. With Sharpton true to form today, I have time to fall in with a group of 14-year-olds. They don't seem to mind Rev's tardiness, on account of its helping them blow through algebra and physical science, though if he costs them a third period, it would be lunch, and 14-year-olds have their limits.

As I talk to them, it becomes clear that, though they know he's running for president and he's famous, they have no idea why. They missed the Rev. Al Horror Show of the late '80s and early '90s: the Tawana Brawley hoax, the Crown Heights and Freddy's Fashion Mart violence which Sharpton egged on, the undignified appearances on the "Morton Downey Jr. Show," such as the night when the once-tubby Sharpton, at the height of his shiny tracksuit and Cowardly Lion hair phase, was rolled off the stage like a bocci ball after a fistfight erupted with another guest.

But that was many makeovers ago. That was before he slimmed down in a Puerto Rican jail, protesting a U.S. Naval bombing range there. It was before his Senate and mayoral runs, where he played the spoiler, swinging votes away from New York Democrats who now give him the high hat. It was before he started getting tailored by the guy who outfits television lawyers on "The Practice." It was before he started hijacking presidential debates, proving that even though he's stalled at single-digits in the polls, he is the only candidate who can turn a phrase. And most important, it was before Jesse Jackson, his onetime friend and mentor, was found to have been carrying some illegitimate fruit on his family tree and became increasingly irrelevant. Before, in other words, the media started taking applications for what Sharpton's kitchen-cabinet adviser Cornel West dismissively calls "HNIC--Head Negro In Charge."

When asked who Sharpton is, the kids seem stumped. One thinks he's a motivational speaker. Another thinks he "has something to do with the NAACP." A third ninth-grader offers, "He's a reverend, right? He's named 'Reverend Al.' Gotta be preaching somewhere." For most candidates, potential voters (or future voters, in the children's case) not knowing who you are is a disadvantage. For a Sharpton constituency, amnesia is one of the most desirable attributes. It allows the candidate to make a fresh start, which he needs even among this group. I assume, stereotypically, that these kids will be easy pickings for Sharpton. I couldn't be more wrong. An African-American teenager named Jerrod, wearing a "Dirty South" football jersey, says, "He needs to think about improving America as a whole instead of just one minority." A boy named Kamil seconds, "He's too strong, he's always attacking something."

"Truthfully," Jerrod says, "I don't think America is ready for a black president." Kamil takes it even further, "I don't think black people are ready for a black president," he says, catching an elbow from the girl sitting next to him. As if on cue, Sharpton pads down the aisle, right on time, if we're going by his internal clock. He walks at least four inches taller than his allotted 5'7". He looks buttery-smooth in an elegantly draped three-button suit, garnished with a white linen pocket square so immaculately fluffed, it could've been laid in his breast pocket by God or Adam Clayton Powell, the latter of whom holds pretty-close-to-equal standing with the former in Sharpton's estimation.

It is apparent, rather quickly, that Sharpton's makeover isn't merely sartorial. Over the years, I've witnessed--many times--Sharpton bullying and race-baiting like any two-bit bullhorn hustler. But from the look of things, a leopard can change his shiny tracksuit. At times, it almost seems that if he had a high-pitched whine and unnaturally long fingers, he could be Alan Keyes instead of Al Sharpton. He tells the students that acting like a thug or some debauched gangster rapper is not a "black thing--the black thing is to reach high, no matter how low you are." He asserts that using racism as an excuse for not making progress--even when it's the culprit--is unacceptable. "If I step off this platform and knock you off your seat, that's on me," he says. "But if I come back next Friday, and you still on the flo', that's on you." Acting disengaged and uninterested in the world at large, he says, is a way to permanently hamstring yourself. "Most old bums start out as young bums," he says. "They cut school, they hung out . . . until one day they were gray-headed, no teeth in their mouth, and the young guy that everybody thought was cool was just an old bum on his way to old bumblehood." The kids titter, while Sharpton looks over at their principal. "That's a new word. Trust me. Write that down."

Standing before the kids as a successfully unsuccessful presidential candidate, he proudly says, "I decided I wasn't going to let anybody tell me what I could be. I encourage you to do the same." He preaches the transforming power of vanity: "Be the chairman of your own fan club. Every mornin', I get up, I have a meeting of the Al Sharpton fan club. I'm the president, secretary, treasurer, and sometimes, I'm the whole membership. But it doesn't matter. Because if I'm on my side, it doesn't matter who's against me."

Out in a foyer press conference afterwards, Tom Llamas, MSNBC's embed on the campaign, rifles one to Sharpton: NBC has him dropping to fifth place in South Carolina, a state in which it's generally believed he needs to finish at least third in order to prove he has any swat among black voters. "If I worried about an NBC poll," shoots back Sharpton, "I'd never get out of bed in the morning. They would poll that I'm going to sleep all day." Back inside, the students I'd been talking to, after standing up and cheering wildly during the speech, are now back to being dispassionate. "He proved my point," says Jerrod, "it was totally directed toward black people." A girl named Katherine tells me the speech was good, but "I'm already inspired by myself." When I snag a white kid walking by, 16-year-old Drew who dresses like an Abercrombie model, he is still smiling. The speech, he says, was "excellent--I was really inspired." Drew's is a sentiment that I encounter over and over again in South Carolina--often, and especially, among white voters--the gist of which goes: Al Sharpton, he's not that bad.

THE NOMINAL SLUG-LINE on Sharpton's homestretch traipse through South Carolina is the "Take a Stand Tour." The campaign, says Andre Johnson, Sharpton's press secretary, even has a theme song--Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up," though in typical Sharpton campaign fashion, nobody thinks to play it at any of the stops. Someone--all right, me--gives it another name: the "Rev Gotta Eat Tour." The name is minted when, at a stop at Columbia's Benedict College, Sharpton is running his characteristic hour-and-a-half late. Llamas goes into the cafeteria and orders the last batch of chicken wings. They are cold, and when he gives them back to the cafeteria worker to heat up, Andre arrives. Andre then orders chicken wings for Sharpton, commandeering some of Llamas's. When Llamas protests, Andre offers no apologies: "Rev gotta eat," he says.

The phrase becomes a salutation, benediction, and all-purpose affirmation--as when Marines say "hooah." Whenever someone wonders where Sharpton is, another person responds with "Rev gotta eat." Some, instead of answering their cell phones with hello, switch to "Rev gotta eat." Others even consider the metaphysical implications of the phrase: "What appetite, exactly, is the Rev feeding when he gotta eat?" What does Sharpton want? On his campaign website, which regularly posts news from three weeks earlier, he lists his top ten reasons for running--none of which seems particularly compelling. Most of his issues--universal health care, for instance--are already being addressed by other candidates. Making sure support for affirmative action stays in the Democratic platform doesn't seem worth the trouble, since it was in the platform last time anyone read it, which few people do. And increasing "political consciousness" hardly seems worth gallivanting around the country for--even if you are staying in five-star hotels, as Sharpton tends to do--when, according to your last filing, you're carrying nearly $400,000 worth of debt with only $8,000 cash on hand.

Sharpton outlines a delegate strategy, knowing full well he's going to lose, but reasoning if he wrangles enough delegates in mostly urban areas, he will get--in keeping with the Rev Gotta Eat theme--"a seat at the table" during the convention and beyond. At the moment, he won't need a very big table. As of this writing, Sharpton has 12 delegates out of a potential 4,321. To compare that to Jesse Jackson's first 1984 presidential run--as Sharpton himself habitually does--Jackson won four states, the District of Columbia, and 465.5 delegates.

How Sharpton plans to get there--even though he does regularly out-perform his poll numbers--confounds many. In South Carolina, the only place he bothered with a ground game, his organization is more like a dis-organization. His staffers give wrong addresses, then ask reporters for directions to campaign stops. His field director is Deves Toon, a churchless reverend. I stop by the ragtag campaign headquarters, which sports one of the only Sharpton signs I see during the entire week ("Signs are expensive," says campaign manager Charles Halloran). When Toon is asked how Sharpton will do, he says, "How am I supposed to know--I ain't got no crystal ball," before he steps into a closet with the only other volunteer present for a "strategy session."

Local activist/writer Kevin Gray, Sharpton's South Carolina coordinator who also worked on Jackson's two presidential runs, left the campaign last fall after not getting paid. Sharpton says part of the goal is to start a Rainbow Coalition-style movement that will last as a permanent progressive alternative to the DLC, but Gray seems skeptical that Sharpton could organize a dinner party. "People keep saying the campaign's in disarray," says Gray. "It's not. To be in disarray, you have to be in array first. . . . He's running a publicity campaign. If you get these delegates, what are you gonna promote? Antiwar? Five out of the nine candidates were antiwar. Reparations? I doubt it. I like Al--he's a likable fella. But I just believe politics ought to have a focus beyond establishing who's the Head Negro in Charge."

When I submit to Gray that I find Sharpton to be more talented than Jackson in nearly every way--smarter, more likable, a better communicator--Gray, who's worked for both, says Sharpton's missing the most important attribute: "Campaign discipline--Jesse had it." (Indeed, in 1988, Jackson won 30 percent of the total vote and 1,218.5 delegates).

Roger Stone couldn't disagree more. An unofficial Sharpton adviser, Miami-based Stone is a Republican who cut his teeth working as a Nixon-era dirty trickster, and has been regarded as a controversialist ever since (Stone once found a steak knife sticking in his caricature at the Palm). In numerous recent articles, Stone has been accused of everything from aligning with Sharpton just to sabotage the Democratic primary, to actually keeping the campaign afloat with byzantine financial arrangements. Of the conspiracy charges, he says, "My name is Roger Stone, not Oliver Stone." And while some have suggested that Stone and Sharpton have one thing in common--they both hate the Democratic party--Stone says his motivation is much simpler. He likes Sharpton, finds him to be a "charming rogue," and besides, he says, "I like the game." While this is a believable explanation knowing Roger Stone (I first met him when he was masterminding the Donald Trump 2000 presidential campaign), his friends suggest that Stone cares as much about solidifying support in the black community in New York, where he frequently makes electoral trouble. When I ask Charles Halloran, Sharpton's campaign manager, what Stone's game is, he smiles and says, "If Roger found some ants in an anthill that he thought he could divide and get pissed off with each other, he'd be in his backyard right now with a magnifying glass."

Stone says people misunderstand his candidate's lineage. "Sharpton's not MLK, he's ACP," says Stone, referring to Adam Clayton Powell, the flamboyant and often hilariously abrasive congressman/pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. "He's a showman, a performer. He does the big speech. He knocks everybody dead. He says what everyone is too timid to say." As for Sharpton's organizational deficiencies, Stone waves them off: "He is the organization." After the Michigan primary, in which Sharpton picks up seven delegates, Stone tells me, "The guy went into Detroit penniless, and he waged a one-man free media blitz. Between black radio and local cable, the guy dominated the news for four days--and it's all him, his performance. He's not a glad-hander. He's a rock star. Have you seen his church performance? It's electrifying."

On this count, Stone couldn't be more correct. Two days before the primary, we see Sharpton as everybody should see Sharpton at least once--working a black church on a Sunday morning. The day starts off with a slight disappointment. The first church he preaches is in Aiken--James Brown's hometown. A week earlier, Stone had suggested that the campaign was working on a cameo by "a certain hardest working man in show business." But then Brown was arrested and released for pushing his wife down and threatening to hit her with a chair. It was enough to keep him off the trail, even if Sharpton did bring along Brown's daughter and his former cook, who Sharpton says "makes the best banana pudding in South Carolina."

If Sharpton's life were a bad sitcom, which it sometimes is, it would be "My Two Dads," with Jesse Jackson and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, playing the fathers. They are his two poles, the bumpers between which he ricochets. Jesse, he tells me, raised him in "politics and civil rights," but James raised him "personally--manhood stuff--we could talk about everything from dating to saving money to adversity to real estate."

Sharpton made a name as a wonderboy preacher in Holiness churches from the age of 4 (in first grade, he actually signed his name "Reverend Al Sharpton"). After his real father split to have an affair with his half-sister, plunging the rest of his comfortably middle class family into poverty, and after Brown's real son was killed in a car accident, the two found each other. When Sharpton graduated from high school, he toured with Brown, his job literally being to hold the bag for Brown. Seeing as how Brown didn't like credit cards or checks, the bag was often filled with as much as $100,000 cash.

When I ask Sharpton to distill his preaching style, I expect him to mention preaching greats like C.L. Franklin (Aretha's father). Instead, he says he learned many of his techniques from Brown. "When you see a James Brown show, and I've seen about a million, he does this thing where he identifies somebody in the audience who's heartbroken and hurt, and he sings to them. . . . When he sings 'I Feel Good,' he thinks about somebody that didn't have no job--we've talked about that. When I preach, the reason I'm animated and dramatic is I try to identify with the people in the audience."

Having grown up in a tradition where church and community were indistinguishable, where a put-upon janitor could get a self-esteem jolt by becoming a deacon, Sharpton says, "People come to church, particularly in the black community--some of them are trying to get from one Sunday to the next. I don't give them some detached oration. I try to give them real hope, because I go back in my mind to when I needed somebody just to get me to the next Sunday. I learned from James how to identify with the guy in the audience, and say what he feels, and then bring him to where you want him to go."

Sharpton likes to joke on the stump that he's a natural to deal with a budget deficit since "I've been broke all my life. . . . I was born in a deficit." Indeed, he has been overcoming deficits his entire life--financial deficits, a credibility deficit, and currently, a vote deficit. As a friend of his tells me, "He continuously sabotages himself mostly because he's only capable of fighting off his back. He's an adrenaline junkie. He needs to live on the cusp of failure and humiliation or he can't fully function." This worldview seems to spill over into his preaching. On the Sunday I catch him, he prepares the crowd at Second Baptist Church in Aiken by first getting them good and hostile.

Slated to preach the 7:45 a.m. service, Sharpton doesn't show until nearly 9:30. After stalling with announcements and songs like "Ain't No Party Like a Holy Ghost Party," it's preaching time, so the unprepared host is actually forced to give an off-the-cuff 30-minute sermon until Sharpton arrives, which he takes out on Sharpton ("Al's coming when he's coming. Even though he's LATE! But when Jesus comes back--He ain't gonna be late!"). Sharpton finally arrives, and pads across the stage imperiously without offering an apology or an explanation. One can almost feel the room turning into John Edwards voters.

Sharpton takes the lectern and leads with an overtly political spiel, explaining that everybody says he's going to lose, but he has a little secret to share, "There are seven running, six of 'em gonna lose." ("C'mon Rev--c'mon now!" the crowd echoes back, turning his way.) It's their choice, he tells them: Vote for a winner who will ignore them, another loser who will gain them nothing, or vote for him, and earn some delegates who will sit at the table and make sometimes impolite conversation. For too long, he tells them, the Democratic party's been selling out the base to appeal to swing voters. "And you know if you married, you can go out swingin' all you want. Doesn't mean your wife gonna be there when you get back."

He builds to a sing-songish crescendo in which he relates how his abandoned mother was suspected of harboring a man in the house by a social worker, since they looked so well put together. He was mad, but his mom told him the woman was right, and here he falls into what the pros call the "whooping style," rasping: "I know a man / I know a ma-ANNN / He'll set you free / He'll make a way-AYYY." He then turns to the house reverend with apologies. "Oh," Sharpton says, "you preached already." The crowd is ecstatic. As common-man stump stories go, his takes John Edwards's tired son-of-a-millworker bit, spanks it, and sends it to bed without any supper.

But it's at the next church, behind a truck stop near the Georgia line, that Sharpton proves judging his speaking ability from the presidential debates is akin to assessing Michael Jordan's athletic prowess from watching him play baseball. Half political, half religious, Sharpton takes as his text the Passover passage from Exodus. He starts slowly, turns it up to simmer, then builds to the Full Al, his throaty gurgle rising to a boil until it sounds like he's going to cook his own vocal chords. He grooves like some old-timey gravel-voiced gospel shouter, and by the time he relates how the Lord is "gonna let the death angel riiiiiide tonight," the crowd is ready to hoist the black flag and begin smiting Egyptians.

Notes-free, as always, he runs through a feverish 20-minute call-and-response, met with choruses of "Uhh-huhhs" and "Bring its." He shout-sings about everything from having decided to follow Jesus, to a saint being a sinner who falls down and gets back up, to his dad leaving him as a 10-year-old, to his bouts with government cheese in the long brown box, to his momma knowing a man who will make a way. "Do you know Him / Get on up." (Here you expect him to look over his shoulder and tell Maceo to take him to the bridge.) He shuffles from foot to foot like he's got a slight case of the trots, dips up and down like a firing piston, and caps it with two full rotations. He sticks the dismount, landing with his mouth perfectly squared in front of the mike, before dropping into a chair with I-can't-do-no-more resignation. The press corps--hardbitten types paid to hate things for a living--stand in gape-mouthed awe. "Did he just do a 360?" I ask CBS's Ben Ferguson in disbelief. "I think it was a 720," Ferguson replies. For today anyway, Sharpton is neither politician nor preacher. He's quite simply an artist.

NOT EVERY DAY can be as easy as Sunday morning, however. Two nights later, Sharpton makes his way into a dingy Sheraton ballroom studded with interlopers from a funeral directors' conference. He valiantly tries to portray his third-place finish--in which he got only 10 percent of the vote and, worse, only one-fifth of the black vote and no delegates--as some kind of resounding triumph. As he grabs a cell phone, I hear him telling a mutual friend, in logic too tortured to replicate here, "I think the real loser tonight is our friend Rev. Jackson."

Later, I ask him about this. He smiles devilishly, telling me I wasn't supposed to hear that. But then I remind him that the last time I interviewed him in his Harlem headquarters in 2000, he actually had a Jesse Jackson videotape cued and ready to show me. "No offense, Al," I say, "But do you think you might be obsessed?" He smiles, and asks, without sounding defensive, who a guy like him is supposed to use as a realistic gauge of success. "If I watch films of Jesse, you say I'm obsessed. If I was watching films of Doug Wilder, you'd say I was out of my mind." He compares it to Mike Tyson watching films of Muhammad Ali, and Ali watching films of Sugar Ray Robinson. "They study those who mastered their art before them."

Having known Jesse since he was a teenager (Jackson is 13 years Sharpton's senior, the same as MLK was to Jackson, Sharpton is fond of pointing out), Sharpton says you can't just say that their on-again, off-again relationship, which has fallen prey to rivalrous sniping and philosophical differences, is merely off-again--even though they currently don't speak.

"I grew up on him--it's more complex than that," says Sharpton. "I've outgrown it, I don't take it personal--but it does bother me." Sharpton, who's currently re-reading Thunder In America, a book about Jesse's 1984 campaign, says he's not quite certain Jackson even regards him as a peer. "I think in his psychology, I'll always be a 13-year-old protégé." The obsession, by the way, appears very mutual. Recent reports have both Sharpton's former campaign manager Frank Watkins (a longtime Jackson intimate) and Jesse Jackson Jr., who endorsed Howard Dean (Sharpton suspects with his old man's okay), gleefully circulating stories about Sharpton's involvement with Roger Stone.

Say this for Sharpton, he's more forthright than Jackson's ever been. When I suggest that his campaign is little more than an exercise in ego, he goes with it. "No one with a weak ego could run for president--cause you're ultimately telling people you can run the Western world, and that you're better than anybody else to do it. So for somebody to say it isn't an exercise in ego is like saying water isn't wet." Having said that, he adds, "Does the exercise help or hurt a given cause? I think the cause of civil rights, human rights, workers' rights is helped by my exercise in ego."

Jackson, these days, gets romanticized in comparisons to Sharpton. People seem to forget that despite all Jesse's relative success in 1988, it culminated in his founding a now moribund Rainbow Coalition, and receiving a plane to barnstorm the country for Michael Dukakis. A man can be forgiven for having loftier goals than barnstorming for Michael Dukakis. Jackson also attained something approaching insider status, though it is here Sharpton ricochets back to the other one of his two dads. He says the difference between where Jesse's gone and where he'll end up is the "James Brown factor." Brown, Sharpton says, "went everywhere, won every award. But he never became an insider in music. Cause he changed music from a 2/4 beat to a 1/3 beat. I want to change the party, not join the party. I have no problem going into areas they don't agree with. Because that's the Brown in me. James never joined the Motown sound, never joined the R&B sound. But 20 years later, rappers are imitating James. He became the inside, he didn't join the inside. He redefined what inside was."

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.