The front page of this morning’s Post carries a headline screaming that the FBI is after the Reverend Al Sharpton. According to the story, which leans heavily on an article in the previous day’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Feds have videotape of Sharpton accepting money from a pair of dubious fund-raisers and are probing whether Sharpton’s 2004 presidential campaign broke filing requirements.
When the average public figure is trashed on the front page of a tabloid, he issues a denial through his lawyer. Al Sharpton calls a press conference. On the sidewalk in front of the Post. A dozen TV cameras, three dozen reporters, and passing tourists stand in the sun on Sixth Avenue, enjoying the show.
There are jokes (“The crime is I didn’t get enough money!”) and denials. There are conspiracy theories that raise the alleged persecution of Al into the historical firmament (“Are we looking at a Watergate here, where they were really surveilling my campaign?”). There’s a 17-year-old kid from Arizona whom the reverend has dubbed “Little Al Sharpton,” a protégé right down to the processed hair. And there’s absurdity: The way Sharpton fulminates about “chicken and pensions,” he makes it sound like a special at Denny’s instead of the core of the accusations against him—that he was peddling access to his friend Bill Thompson, the city comptroller, to the fund-raisers, who wanted Thompson to steer pension money into a scheme to invest in the Church’s Chicken chain.
It’s a vintage, bravura performance. Still, something is wrong. Something apart from the eternal impossibility of determining whether Sharpton is telling the truth. No, what’s off is a matter of tone. The one time Sharpton’s tongue tangles is when I ask him why, if the facts are on his side, he’s so worked up. “What I’m angry about is reading a story that they say is based on a story and they leave out of the story that according to that paper, they looked and we in fact had filed monies that these gentleman raised. So if you’re gonna put a story on the front page, you should at least put all of the facts on. That’s all.” There’s something new in Al Sharpton’s long-running act: a touch of desperation.
With good reason. His cable reality show, I Hate My Job, disappeared quietly in January after eight episodes and Neilsen ratings that began with a zero. His marriage of 23 years collapsed. At 50, Sharpton lives mostly in hotels and airports. Sitting in his midtown office—an unmarked, windowless cubicle inside the occupational safety and health department of the Service Employees union building next to the Port Authority—the reverend is starting to look old.
On the political front, his 2004 presidential campaign sputtered quickly. And even though Sharpton claims the run solidified his stature as a national figure, New York is his base. And for reasons unconnected to Sharpton, that base is wobbling.
What not long ago played as racial tragedy—the Bensonhurst gang killing of Yusuf Hawkins that turned the 1989 mayoral campaign in David Dinkins’s favor; the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo that galvanized anger at Rudy Giuliani—has devolved into farce. In 2001, racial politics turned into a cartoon, literally, when the circulation of a Post drawing ridiculing Sharpton and Freddy Ferrer drove minority voters away from Mark Green in his general-election matchup with Michael Bloomberg. This year, the “controversy” is over Ferrer’s revisionist remarks about the six-year-old Diallo shooting.
For the city as a whole, the shift is a hopeful sign. But it has disoriented the candidates. No one is sure which of the old racial-politics formulas works anymore. The changes in city demographics, and in Sharpton’s own fortunes, make it difficult to estimate how much clout he has left. Certainly he’s still able to grab media attention, as when he backed the West Side stadium. Sharpton says he did it because the project will create jobs, and because a Jets staffer, the son of the singer from Cameo, asked for his help; the move doesn’t hurt him with Bloomberg, either. “Sharpton does exceptionally well among poor people and among upper-middle-income blacks,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant not working for any of this year’s mayoral contenders. “If you keep your distance from him, you run the risk of alienating some of the people who swear by him.”