Al Sharpton can’t help himself. Here he is: suited up in a banker’s three-piece, a Churchill-size cigar between his fingers (“the power look,” he says), and anchored in a club chair at the Grand Havana Room, the members-only stogie club that hovers above the clouds, on the top floor of 666 Fifth Avenue.
“Here, check this out,” he says, resting the cigar with a thud. He fishes in his pants pocket, produces a cell phone, pushes a few buttons, and passes it over for a listen.
The voice sounds familiar. “Hey, Al, this is Hillary Clinton, and...” Is it really her? Yep. Clinton is actually calling Sharpton for—pinch yourselves, folks—campaign advice. She wants to know what issues she should raise in an upcoming debate at Howard University. The focus is on black issues, and, well, who is a better judge of black issues in America than the ubiquitous face of them?
Sharpton has the cigar back in his fingers now. He wants the phone back. “Here,” he says, making sure to save the message. “Now, check this out.”
Another voice. “Al, this is Barack Obama...” Obama! Seriously? The senator also wants advice about the debate at Howard. Sharpton has calculated the values closely. “Hillary called three days before the debate,” he says. “Barack called like three hours before.”
And on the surface, that’s partly what this primary season comes down to for Sharpton: a race to see which candidate can kiss his ring the most, the fastest, and with the most sincere pucker. With a black candidate and the spouse of “the first black president” in the race, the jockeying to secure the black vote in the primaries has never been more intense. All of which puts Sharpton in demand. “In the end,” he says, “they may all hate my guts. But it’s the reality of the landscape … how much they need me and how bad. I’m sure right now they know they need me.” Though many have said that Sharpton’s brand of identity politics is obsolete, citing Obama (not to mention the ongoing investigation of the reverend’s finances) as evidence, Sharpton isn’t worried. “Ten years ago, they said Colin Powell was going to make Jesse obsolete. And ten years before. They’ve always had a Barack Obama. There will always be a more inside, acceptable black they will say makes us obsolete. I worry about that as much as James Brown worried about Sammy Davis making him obsolete.”
Around this time last year, it was a good bet that Sharpton would endorse Hillary Clinton. Within Hillary’s vast campaign, insiders thought Sharpton would be recruited as a priceless tabloid mercenary who could launch broadsides against Obama on that one taboo issue where he is vulnerable: his blackness. (“Ain’t too many of us grew up in Hawaii and went to Harvard,” Sharpton says.) Last January, Sharpton had a closed-door meeting with Bill Clinton at the former president’s Harlem offices. Afterward, Clinton’s staff came away with the impression that they had already secured Sharpton’s endorsement. When Sharpton’s people found out about this, they rushed to back away. No, they told Clinton’s staff, Sharpton had not promised Bill his endorsement of Hillary. Sharpton’s explanation? “Politicians hear what they want to hear. They think a cordial meeting is the same as ‘I want to support you.'”
Until recently, Sharpton’s relationship with Obama has been more aloof. Sharpton has also been underwhelmed by Obama’s campaign. “He never came off as a fighter,” he says, a strategy that he thinks has hurt Obama with a key demographic: black women. “Black women like a fighter. Even if you’re fighting a fight that is not my fight, I will believe that you might fight my fight. And to come off as ‘I’m all right with everybody’ doesn’t give people who want a fight a comfort level. I want somebody who’s at least a little upset with somebody, because I’m mad as hell. If you’re not mad, how do I get passionate about you?”
Sharpton thinks Obama should take more cues from his wife, Michelle. He still thinks about the time he bumped into her at a recent Chicago fund-raiser. He claims the conversation went like this.
“How you doing, Mrs. Obama?”
She’s tall, and looked down at him. “I’d do a lot better if we had your endorsement.”
Sharpton tried to play dumb. “What do you mean?”
“We need your endorsement. I’m just telling you straight out: We need your endorsement. What are you going to do?”
Sharpton didn’t know what to say. “I’m like, ‘Uh, well, duh.’ I mean, she was like a sister back in Brownsville, where I grew up!”
Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters is located on the eleventh floor of an office building in downtown Chicago. If there was once hesitation here about engaging in a lovefest with Sharpton, those jitters are long gone. “Reverend Sharpton is always welcome, and we look forward to his continued support and counsel,” says one Obama staffer. If Sharpton does join the Obama movement, the question for Obama’s advisers will be, How much of the stage will Obama be willing to share? In many ways, Sharpton embodies what Obama’s campaign has been running against: the same old race-baiting politics run by backroom demagogues. How could Obama be the candidate who moves “beyond race” when the firebrand behind the Tawana Brawley scandal is out stumping for him?