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.