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Rev Vs. Rev

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Jackson is not a good listener. He is royalty performing. So when I arrived, he launched right into an angry, 40-minute monologue. He just went off on Sharpton. It wasn't a conversation. It wasn't an interview. It wasn't a briefing. It was a primal-scream sermon.

Jackson asked me why I hadn't exposed Don King's financial support of Sharpton's organization, and urged me to probe Sharpton's ties to Republicans and his endorsement of Al D'Amato in 1986.

And he complained bitterly about Peter Noel's frequent attacks on him in The Village Voice, often written from a Sharpton point of view. He was most upset by Noel's disclosing, and quoting from, the Reverend Wyatt Walker's letter, which dealt with Jackson's child with Stanford.

When I pushed Jackson (whom I have known since the sixties) to say something on the record, he erupted in eloquent emotionalism. "I have no interest in this subject of me and Al," he began. "This so-called feud is a white version of black reality. Ask me about poverty. Ask me about economic development. Ask me about aids and hunger. Ask me about Afghanistan and terrorism. But don't pull me into some racist media game. It minimizes my interest in the world. We should be discussing how I see the world at 60.

"Ask me about the last 40 years, brother," Jackson continued. "In July of 1960, I was arrested in Greenville for trying to use the public library. I have witnessed a profound change since then. We are a better country today. Ask me about history. Ask me about real life. I got nothing to say about Al.

"It's cultural racism to reduce black life to a story about me and Al. You're my friend, so you can write whatever you want. But this is sick."

At the end of our breakfast, as we walked through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, Jackson whispered in his sometimes thicker Southern accent, "If you're going to refer to that Enquirer story, make sure you mention that I didn't lie about my child. I admitted it right away. I took responsibility."

As Jackson rode up the escalator, my mind went back to a day, five years earlier, that I spent in another hotel, with Jackson, Sharpton, and public-relations expert Ken Sunshine, an unpaid adviser to both men.

This was at the peak of the Jackson-Sharpton friendship, with Sharpton in the subordinate position. Sharpton was calling Jackson "Big Rev," and Jackson was calling Sharpton "Little Rev." There was a deep warmth and humor between them that day as we just hung out together before Jackson would speak at a synagogue that night.

"You're from the Driving Miss Daisy generation," Sharpton needled his mentor.

"Yeah, the driving-Miss Daisy-crazy generation," Jackson snapped back.

At the end of the afternoon, Jackson pulled me aside and began to lament his lack of recognition from the Establishment for all that he has achieved.

"Please, explain to me how I have gone from dangerous to passé without ever stopping at popular," he said.

Both Sharpton and Jackson went through puberty and adolescence without their natural fathers in the home. This hole in their lives left a scar on both their psyches, an unquenchable thirst for approval.

Jesse Jackson's biological father was Noah Robinson, the married next-door neighbor who impregnated Jesse's 16-year-old mother, Helen, in Greenville, South Carolina. Robinson, 33, was a prosperous and popular figure in the segregated black community, while teenage Helen was dreaming of a musical career when she decided not to abort her embarrassing pregnancy.

Jesse Jackson was born into the poorest part of Greenville. His mother was so impoverished that sometimes Jesse's grandmother Tibby would have to stand on Robinson's back porch and plead for milk for baby Jesse.

In a speech years ago, Jackson cried, "When I was in my mother's belly, no father to give me a last name, they called me a bastard and rejected me."

Robinson avoided all open contact with Jesse -- until he became a popular high-school football star. Jackson says he never spent one night of his life under the same roof as his natural father.

Jackson grew up to the taunts of "You ain't got no daddy. You ain't nothing but a nobody."

No wonder that twenty years later, he would lead audiences in the fervent chant of "I am somebody! I am God's child."

Jackson says he did not know that Noah Robinson was his biological father until sometime between his 6th and his 9th birthdays. (The name Jackson comes from his stepfather, who adopted him.)

What made it more painful was that young Jesse worshiped the father who did not acknowledge him and whom he saw every day heading another family.

Al Sharpton experienced an equally dysfunctional childhood, which he rarely talks about. "My daddy created a Woody Allen- type situation when I was 9 years old," Sharpton told me. "My daddy walked out on us, and he married my half-sister, Tina. Tina was my mother's daughter from a previous marriage. This was a big scandal in the church world, where I was already this boy preacher. There was a lot of shame involved."

There was also dramatic downward economic mobility. Sharpton's abandoned mother had to go on welfare and became a maid. And Sharpton, who was living in comfortable middle-class Hollis, Queens, on 199th Street, had to move to the projects in Brownsville, at Saratoga and Livonia Avenues. "It was rough for me growing up in Brownsville in the mid-sixties," Sharpton acknowledges. "I wasn't street. I was church."

Sharpton has never reconciled with his father and understands that his adult life has been a serial quest for father substitutes, including Jackson. Almost tearing up, he says, "I love my mother. I had to watch her suffer from the humiliation of her daughter stealing her husband, and of having a child out of wedlock with her husband."

When I ask Sharpton to describe his absent father, he says, "He was a slumlord, owned about twenty buildings in Brooklyn. He was also a boxer, like Jesse's daddy. My father always told us he was a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson. And I know that Noah Robinson was good, won 18 of 19 fights, won fights in Philadelphia.

"My father did well by exploiting black people. Even today I still feel hostility towards him, but now it's manageable."

Sharpton remembers that Jackson once told him, "Don't use your not having a father as an excuse. We all have sad stories."

Al Sharpton seems to think that by running for president, he can trump his tutor and gain the advantage in their complex competition. "When I'm running," Sharpton told me, "Reverend has to react to me. Does he support me, or does he support Daschle or Edwards? Does he accept some role in my campaign? What does he do if the Democratic National Committee asks him to stop me from running? Reverend will have to make decisions in response to my candidacy."

But many black political leaders are dubious about whether Sharpton -- still mostly a local and regional figure -- can put together a national campaign. Or a national campaign nearly as effective as Jackson's 1988 effort, when he finished second, won 7 million votes (3 million from whites), beat Al Gore in seventeen of eighteen states, and won New York City and Michigan. Jackson had the drama and emotion of being the first seriously contending black candidate for president. Sharpton will not have that rocket launch of being the first. Jackson, meanwhile, is ratcheting up his rhetoric against John Ashcroft, attempting to define himself once again as the country's most vocal defender of civil liberties -- a role, of course, that Sharpton covets.

Sharpton will also be carrying the baggage of never having come clean about two episodes in his past -- being an informer for the FBI, and his complicity in the Brawley rape hoax and Pagones defamation.

The Brawley disgrace is well known, but his informer role has been largely forgotten -- alternately boldly denied or cleverly minimized by Sharpton. In 1988, though, the NYPD confirmed that Sharpton had been an informer for the FBI in 1983.

As a wired informer during a boxing investigation, Sharpton recorded conversations with heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, boxing promoter Murad Muhammad, and organized-crime figures Michael Franzese and Danny Pagano. In some interviews, Sharpton has claimed he was only working against drug dealers, but Larry Holmes is no drug dealer.

Several years ago, when I asked Sharpton about the tapes he made for the FBI, he claimed, "I had a rule with them. I would not tape any black elected officials or members of the black clergy."

When I reminded him that he had taped Bronx councilman Wendell Foster, who was also a member of the black clergy, Sharpton, without missing a beat, retorted, "That was an accident! Foster called me on the wrong line and the tape clicked on automatically. I didn't do it."

Former FBI squad chief John Pritchard, who supervised Sharpton's informant role for a while, told me in 1995, "The Rev was a great bullshitter. I have to say he probably conned the FBI in terms of the boxing investigation."

All year long, Bill Lynch, who works with both men, has been giving Jackson and Sharpton the same message: "The stage is big enough for both of you," Lynch told each of them. "There is no reason to be direct rivals. Put the personal stuff aside. There is enough work to be done. There is enough credit to be gained for both of you."

Last Tuesday night, both Jackson and Sharpton preached brilliantly at the House of Justice in Harlem, before an aroused crowd of 500. It was a unity photo op.

Before the rally, there was a press conference in Sharpton's inner office. That's where Sharpton apologized for his past attacks on Jackson, expressing repentance to a roomful of reporters and photographers.

"I apologize for causing any rift and any feud with Reverend Jackson," said Sharpton, even going on to apologize for making harsh remarks to journalists attributed to an "unnamed source."

Jackson did not know in advance Sharpton was going to say this.

"What Al just did," Jackson responded, "is what Gandhi did. As leaders we practice soul force. We do self-purification and self-examination."

Then a reporter asked, "Is there anything you have said about Reverend Sharpton that you want to apologize for?"

"I haven't said anything about him that I regret," Jackson replied, a truthful reply, since he has not attacked his protégé in public.

"Leaders must have the capacity to forgive. We redeem and move on to issues that matter," Jackson added. "The issue is not things personal. It's our working together on issues that matter, like Ashcroft and civil liberties and rights in jeopardy."

The next day, Sharpton called from a plane to talk about the man who'd taught him everything.

"He was happy about my public apology, but I don't know how he reacted to Percy Sutton endorsing my candidacy. And he never apologized to me about anything.

"I'm still learning to have a father figure, and Jesse is still learning how to deal with a rebellious son," Sharpton said. "We're working on it."


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