About ten years ago, Charlie Rangel demonstrated to me a vital principle of New York political life. This was the Reagan-Bush era; I kept noticing that on foreign-affairs questions, the Harlem congressman would speak with righteous thunder about U.S. support for Guatemalan death squads, or the fact that the government kept General Noriega on the State Department payroll before growing bored with him and bombing his city. Meanwhile, closer to home, at a meeting designed to elect more progressives to the City Council, there sat Charlie, trying to steer the designation for the East Harlem seat to an old crony of his who was the least progressive in the field.
Thus, the principle: The farther away from New York they go, the better New York politicians tend to look.
Three weeks ago, I sat with the Reverend Al Sharpton at his National Action Network offices in Harlem. He'd just flown back from Los Angeles, where he filmed a bit part for Adam Sandler's new movie. But I was interested in talking to him about another recent trip, to refugee camps in Sudan to investigate slavery.
Sharpton tends to get a lot of flak from the political press for self-interested stunting. This is not, given his penchant for and expertise at political manipulation, entirely without warrant. But in this case the sniping is off target. "If I just wanted credit for speaking on the issue," Sharpton points out, "I could have held a press conference at the National Press Club and said the same thing I said over there. I mean, there ain't no votes over there. I didn't have to risk my life going there. They bombed another camp six kilometers from us the second night we were there."
Two things struck me as we spoke. The first -- and I've spoken to him many times on many topics -- was that the usual working of angles was noticeably absent. Washington-based civil-rights veteran Walter Fauntroy got Sharpton interested in the issue over the course of the past several months. As he looked into it, he says, he came to believe that "there's some validity to the criticism that those of us in the civil-rights movement have not dealt with this issue."
There's more than some. Human-rights groups of the left and religious-freedom organizations of the right have been active on the Sudan question for years (get this: Currently acting as co-counsel for activists getting themselves arrested outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington are Johnnie Cochran and Ken Starr). But the mainstream black civil-rights movement has spent a lot of time trying to change the subject. To hear Sharpton even feint toward acknowledging an uncomfortable fact about black leadership's moral shortcomings, without adding the buts and corollaries that are often such important pieces of his rhetorical artillery, was unusual.
The second was that he was clearly moved by what he saw. Last week, I went to his midtown offices in the Empire State Building (who knew?) to watch a videotape of the trip made by his associate Eddie Harris. I was moved, too, as anyone would be.
On a searing-hot savanna, about 700 or so Dinka tribe members who had been slaves -- women and children as young as 10 or 11, many bearing scars from the owner's lash -- sat awaiting the moment of their liberation. They'd been held by northern Muslims who, over 18 years of civil war against Christians and animists from the South, killed the men and enslaved the women and children. These captives had been rescued and spirited back to the south by men called retrievers, who are Muslims themselves but also Dinkas. The retrievers deliver the slaves to the redeemers, who are members of the Christian Solidarity movement, which raises money to buy back their freedom.
Harris caught one such transaction on tape. The slaves sat in silence as the retrievers -- only their eyes visible through their clothing -- and redeemers -- one American and the other Swiss -- went through the motions of what had the ritualistic feel of a major drug deal, except that the commerce was in flesh. The transaction took place under the watchful eyes of armed members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The redeemers carefully counted out millions in Sudanese currency (about $40 per person). Finally, the Christian Solidarity people turned to the slaves -- whom Sharpton was given a chance to lead in prayer -- and announced to them that they were free to go. And for the first few moments, they just sat there, because for these women and children whose men have been killed and villages destroyed, the question was, go where?
"I was in the morgue with the Diallos and the Hawkins family when they identified their children," Sharpton says. "But there's nothing to prepare you for seeing what I saw there." Sharpton plans to go back this summer, and maybe again in the fall with Michael Jackson and other celebrities. He'll benefit from the publicity, and people will say he's doing it to divert attention from this or that. But hey, it's slavery. He's doing the right thing.
And then last week, back in New York, and back to mischief: The Reverend warned mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer -- through the Times, no less -- that if he wanted Sharpton's endorsement, he'd better support not only Bill Thompson, a black candidate for city comptroller, but also some theoretical black candidate for Bronx borough president who doesn't exist yet. The declaration showed the Rangel Principle at work: The guileless Al who was awed by his interactions with Sudanese slaves had given way to the Al who's working the angles.
In this case, speculation about his motivations is called for. Why did he do this so publicly? Because he can, that's why. Ferrer needs, or at least thinks he needs, Sharpton's backing to put his coalition together. So Sharpton is in a position to set conditions.
I doubt that Sharpton cares much one way or the other whether Ferrer actually becomes mayor, and in fact I bet he'd probably prefer Mark Green. Sharpton would be better off, after all, with a Jew in City Hall who sort of likes him than he would with a Puerto Rican whose election would invite a slew of news stories about how Latinos, and not blacks, are the new minority power base in this town. And yet he still may choose Ferrer, because if he does, and Ferrer wins, then he's been a key player in cementing the black-Latino coalition, which I can tell you no insider in New York thinks can actually come together.
So you see what I mean. Next to all this, Sudan is pretty straightforward.