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Rev Vs. Rev

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"I'm not as sensitive to critics as he is," Sharpton accurately observed. "I grew up with James Brown and Don King, and they were getting attacked all the time. I came up expecting controversy. But Jesse's mentor had the Nobel Peace Prize and universal acclamation by the time Jesse went to work for him. He expects to be treated the way Dr. King was, and I expect to be treated like Don King."

Sharpton then began to reminisce about all the years he would personally pick Jackson up at the airport and follow him around all day like a staff member.

"I learned a lot," he said, "but I don't do that anymore.

"I know I'm a glass of milk with a little bit of shit in it," Sharpton said, laughing. "But look at" -- he names a local minister -- "he's a glass of shit with a little milk in it."

I asked Sharpton to specify some of the events and issues that caused his rift with Jackson to become so public.

"Clinton was the big one," he replied. "I felt Jesse used his tremendous access to the White House to help Sandy Weill and those Wall Street guys more than to help working people and consumers. He got too close to power.

"Our conflict is also definitely generational," Sharpton goes on. "There is a younger voter that Jesse can't reach, that I can. Poor folks in the projects. The hip-hop generation . . . Jesse doesn't have the defiance I have."

Then Sharpton outlined a career strategy for his mentor's sunset years: "Jesse should start playing the elder-statesman, grandfatherly role that A. Philip Randolph played during the sixties. Randolph advised King. He helped set up the paradigm of the Big Six leaders -- King, Wilkins, Whitney Young, Jim Farmer, John Lewis, himself. That's what we should have today. Jesse, me, Kweisi Mfume, Jesse Jackson Jr., Greg Meeks, Martin King III. It's time for a new generation to share leadership."

Sharpton's vast ambition has never exactly been a secret. And Jackson's focus on corporate America -- what some have called the velvet shakedown -- has taken him away from his protest roots toward Wall Street and Silicon Valley, leaving Sharpton an opening. The first public surfacing of the rift came in 2000, when Jackson and Sharpton took opposing positions in a franchise dispute between Burger King and a wealthy black franchisee named La-Van Hawkins. Hawkins claimed he was promised 225 additional franchises and that Burger King was reneging on the deal. Sharpton got involved and said Burger King should either honor its commitment or else award the franchises to other blacks.

Jackson sided with Burger King, which was a financial backer of his Wall Street Project. The New Republic then reported on the disagreement, making it public, personal, and political.

There has also been an almost high-school-ish gossipy element to the tension. Sharpton says, "Last May or June, a mutual friend of ours, a Harvard professor, told me something that Jesse had said to him that hurt my feelings. Jesse told this individual that I was only renewing my wedding vows with Kathy to embarrass Jesse, because of his problems."

This rivalry runs the gamut from Freud to Friends.

All year, Sharpton took little digs at Jackson, while people viewed as Sharpton surrogates, like journalist Peter Noel and the Reverend Wyatt Walker, the chair of Sharpton's National Action Network, took even harder shots. And all through 2001, Jackson seemed off his game. He volunteered to negotiate the release of 24 American air-crew members from China, but Colin Powell declined his offer. He said the Taliban approached him to be a mediator, but that proved not to be accurate. When rioting broke out in Cincinnati, a local minister told him his presence was not needed. By then Sharpton was there, flying directly from Sudan.

All year long, intermediaries tried to broker a truce. On October 8 -- Jackson's 60th birthday -- Sharpton sent him a dozen roses. On Thanksgiving Day, Jackson called Sharpton, reminding him to make his traditional calls to other leaders, as Jackson had instructed him.

At the end of November, the two ministers shared a platform together in Chicago, at a press conference to urge an end to gang-related revenge and cross-fire killings -- more than 120 in Chicago during the past eleven months.

"We have to set an example and end the gang-banging among ourselves," Sharpton declared.

With that, Jackson -- very playfully -- leaned over and tried to kiss Sharpton on the lips.

I met Jesse Jackson for breakfast at 7 a.m. in late November. He had already watched CNN, made his calls, and read Scripture, which he does every day.

Jackson, this huge historical figure, seemed like a bear that had been licking its wounds in the brush all year. He looked melancholy and about 25 pounds heavier than last winter. That was when he lost his close friend in the White House, when Bill Clinton left office, the friend he prayed with, who did favors for him and gave him derivative power through access.

At almost the same time, the National Enquirer disclosed that Jackson had fathered a daughter out of wedlock with Karin Stanford, a Jackson biographer and the then director of the Washington office of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Jackson admitted it right away, but the disclosure damaged his standing with black women, and he was criticized by the most respected black columnists in the country, like Jack White in Time magazine and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune.

Sharpton, while defending him aggressively on the illegitimate-child issue, jabbed at his former mentor hard on just about everything else. And he went too far in a television interview conducted while he was fasting in jail. While answering questions about his civil conviction for defaming prosecutor Steven Pagones during the Tawana Brawley rape hoax, Sharpton tried to change the subject by raising the old controversy about Jackson smearing the blood of the martyred King on his shirt to anoint himself as King's blood successor. (Andrew Young says that Ralph Abernathy actually scooped up King's blood and poured it into a jar.)

"I think the Brawley case pales in comparison," Sharpton said. "Did I take the blood of the guy I loved and put it on my shirt?"

As soon as this remark aired on the Fox network, national black leaders rushed to rebuke Sharpton. Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager, said, "Reverend Jackson is by far the most popular black-activist politician in the country, with more than 80 percent support (among blacks). Al Sharpton gets less than 50 percent."

Sharpton knew he had blundered badly, and from jail he immediately issued "a sincere and unconditional" public apology to Jackson. He also released a letter to Jackson saying, "I do not now, and have never believed you acted improperly at the scene of King's assassination."

The letter went on to claim Sharpton was only trying to illustrate the ways in which the media has used "false and distorted allegations against you" -- a glib recovery that doesn't appear to be entirely accurate.

Recently, Sharpton told me, "I was wrong to say that about Jesse. I apologized, which I almost never do. I lost my emotional discipline. Better emotional discipline is still one of the things I have to learn from my mentor."

A few weeks after Sharpton attacked Jackson's conduct, Jackson summoned me to meet him at the New York Stock Exchange, which he seemed to be using as his New York office for the day.


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