It is easy to forget that the Reverend Al Sharpton is a mere 59 years old. The man has been so vividly present in modern city history, in so many guises — James Brown protégé, Tawana Brawley provocateur, Bill de Blasio mayoral-campaign fulcrum, to name a few — that it sometimes feels as if Sharpton must be 159 years old.
Last Friday, between segments of his daily radio show and heading to One Police Plaza for a consultation about shop-and-frisk with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, the Rev was talking to me about his friend the president. Barack Obama is coming to the city this Friday to address the annual convention of Sharpton’s National Action Network.
“This is the first civil rights group he’s addressing this year, and before we go into midterm election season,” the Rev said. “This is also going to be the first time he makes a major address in a city where de Blasio has made income inequality a big issue. A lot of things will be coming to a head — racial politics is not defined as it was 20 years ago. In that reshuffling, the president’s speech is going to have very serious ramifications.”
But now Sharpton’s imminent White House validation is competing for attention with a fascinating report in The Smoking Gun detailing his role as an FBI informant. The Rev’s impending grand triumph is sadly tarnished by the reminder of his wily gifts for self-preservation — right?
Not if you understand the core of the long-running Rev melodrama: Sharpton, for all his radical trappings, has always wanted to be a respected mainstream player. The hustling Harlem minister has long since gone Establishment. Most recently, the mayor leaned on Sharpton for help during the pre-K push, and Sharpton’s top lieutenant became First Lady Chirlane McCray’s chief of staff.
Sharpton’s explanation for wearing a wire and meeting with mafiosi back in the '80s? He didn’t “flip” out of fear he could be charged as an accessory to an alleged cocaine deal — he was a concerned citizen, scared because he’d been threatened by thugs, and righteously trying to help law enforcement keep drugs out of the community. “I was not a rat,” Sharpton said this morning, “because I was not with the rats. I am a cat, because I chase rats.”
This latest episode will probably make him a bigger feline. His MSNBC talk-show ratings will go up; his most recent book will sell more copies. Unless Obama cancels his Friday appearance at Sharptonfest, the Rev’s fresh stack of tabloid front-page headlines should end up burnishing the legend: The radical preacher who started out fighting the power has become part of the power structure.
Having the president on the program must sell a lot of convention tickets. “Oh, we were already sold out,” Sharpton said, his tone blasé. “It adds prestige.” And the Rev has plenty of practice turning notoriety into prestige.