Al Sharpton and I are having dinner at Ballato on Houston Street. He has his cell phone on the table; it rings thirteen times in 90 minutes. The Reverend is pecking at a salad, trying to keep off the weight he lost while serving his prison time for the Vieques protest.
We are talking about his Oedipal struggle with his political, religious, and civil-rights father, Jesse Jackson. The two men have feuded, made up, and feuded again over the past fifteen years.
"You know, my wife, Kathy, and Jesse's wife, Jackie, have remained good friends through all our fighting," Sharpton offers as an opening. "Our wives talk almost every day," he goes on. "A few months ago, Jackie says to my wife on the phone, 'Look at our two damn-fool husbands. Two fatherless preachers with awful childhoods, looking for love, and having a midlife crisis on national television.' "
It sometimes seems that Jackson, 60, could sue Sharpton, 47, for copyright infringement, as Sharpton keeps imitating his mentor, walking in his shoes, and sometimes borrowing his socks. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, and now Sharpton says he is running for president in 2004, "as a Democrat in the primaries like Jesse, not as an independent in the general."
Jackson started the Wall Street Project to create capital and jobs; then Sharpton started his Madison Avenue Initiative to direct advertising revenues to the black media from national corporations. For 30 years, Jackson had regular Saturday-morning community rallies in Chicago, and Sharpton has led them for the past five years in Harlem. In the seventies, Jackson wore a distinctive medallion around his neck, and in the eighties, Sharpton wore a Martin Luther King Jr. medallion everywhere in public.
Over the years, Jackson had some of his most spectacular triumphs in foreign policy, as he negotiated freedom for American hostages from anti-American governments in Iraq, Cuba, and Syria. Sharpton is now trying to expand his franchise into foreign policy with trips to Sudan to shine a media spotlight on the enslavement of black Christians there and to Puerto Rico to protest the Navy's bombardment of Vieques.
And both Jackson and Sharpton claim to be disciples of King, inheritors of King's tradition of redemptive suffering and Gandhian nonviolence (of course, King was a moral prophet with pure motives, unquestioned integrity, and angelic humility -- not exactly words you could choose for Sharpton or Jackson).
King was a father figure to the fatherless Jackson from the moment they first met, in Selma in 1965. King immediately recognized in the young Jackson large gifts as an organizer, speaker, and strategist, and Jackson dropped out of seminary to go to work for King on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
But by 1968, there was tension in the relationship. King worried about Jackson's impatient ambition and relentless self-promotion. He rebuked Jackson at an SCLC staff meeting for "doing your own thing."
Shortly before his assassination, King did say of his 26-year-old protégé, "He just simply does not know how to love."
But in King's last, prophetic "I've been to the mountaintop" speech on the night before his assassination, he did quote Jackson and recognize him from the pulpit in a complimentary way.
Al Sharpton's formative influences were Adam Clayton Powell, James Brown, Don King, and Jesse Jackson. He is the cocktail combination of all of them -- trickster, showman, agitator, orator, overachiever, and underachiever. And like all his mentors, Sharpton has the one-dimensional notion that leadership is about media exposure, that publicity is power.
Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson first met in 1969. Jackson was 27 and the national director of the SCLC's Chicago-based Operation Breadbasket, which was trying to generate private-sector jobs for blacks. Sharpton was then 14, the boy-wonder preacher and the youth organizer for Breadbasket in New York.
Sharpton recalls that Jackson's first words to him were, "Choose your targets and kick ass. Stay in school and don't let these elder guys use you."
In 1975, when Sharpton dropped out of Brooklyn College after two years, the only people who urged him to stay in school were his mother and Jesse Jackson. Sharpton says Jackson goaded him, saying, "Here come the boy wonder. Ain't gonna be nothing but a Harlem fanatic."
"I resented it then," Sharpton tells me, "but now I realize that Jesse was right. He wanted me to be prepared for the future with a higher education."
Then I asked Sharpton directly what his feud with his mentor is all about, why there is this conflict in such a large nation, with so much injustice to combat, with so much room for a multiplicity of black leaders.
"I love Jesse," he began. "He taught me everything I know. He introduced me to every important person I know. He will always be my mentor. Our families are close. I'm close with his children. I am his son.
"But that's why 98 percent of our differences are personal. Because I owe Jesse so much, therefore Jesse thinks I have to obey him, agree with him about everything out of loyalty. But I don't agree, so we fight sometimes. It's about pride, respect, envy, hurt feelings, deference.
"It is Freudian! It is Shakespearean!" Sharpton exclaimed, making his life sound a little like a movie pitch.
"Reverend is the smartest person I have ever known. I still study videos of his old speeches and press conferences. Every morning, while Jesse is on the treadmill watching CNN, I'm on the treadmill watching him!"
Then Sharpton went further. "I do feel it's time that I share the stage with him as an equal. But his ego is bigger than mine, so he is having a hard time giving me my space. But Jesse has lost some of his instincts for issues. He looked silly trying to suspend Halloween. He messed up by saying the Taliban had invited him to mediate. Jesse is like Muhammad Ali now. He can't fight no more, but he is still a great champion.
Photo: Mark Peterson, Corbis Saba