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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.