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Reverend President!?

Whether he’s running for president of America— or president of Black America—Al Sharpton’s political sphere just got a lot bigger. “People used to say I was an ambulance chaser. I said, Fool, I am the ambulance. Now I’m the national ambulance.”

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The candidate’s car lurched past the White House and turned left, and now the Capitol dome, huge and even whiter, like Moby-Dick in the late-afternoon sun, loomed ahead. Did the proximity of these icons of the American Republic prompt a pitter-pat in his heart?

Pitter-pat?” the Candidate replied, squinting, his brown brow furrowing, as it does when he’s confronted with a question he hasn’t applied his gravelly baritone to 5,000 times before. “I have serious regard for the seats of power. But what matters to me happens outside of places like the Capitol dome, in the shadows of the building . . . here. Look at this guy.”

Traffic was jammed up in the 95-degree heat. A scruffy-looking Hispanic man in a snap-back cap was hawking bottles of Poland Spring. “Here, in the shadows, is a man selling water. Selling water! Trying to make a living, salvage dignity. Yet most people inside the Capitol probably think he’s a beggar while Ken Lay is a responsible businessman. Exposing that lie from the shadows—that’s what puts the pitter-pat in my heart.”

It was a good answer. A characteristically florid yet properly populist answer. Some might even consider it a presidential answer.

The Candidate has plenty of such answers. In the thrall of his rhetorical fire, it is not impossible to imagine the impossible: that we weren’t cramped into a small foreign car going to the Florida Grill on the chocolate-city side of town for one more plate of smothered chicken but rather in a steel-plated limo, surrounded by pomp, sharpshooters, and the Secret Service, curly cords coming from their ears, wired for sound.

To say it couldn’t be so is a denial of the American Dream. Compared with the dossier of unearned privilege often peddled to the electorate, current frat-boy CEO not excepted, the Candidate’s life story is downright Lincolnesque, in a New York urban-contemporary way.

Here is the bootstrap saga of the “boy preacher,” seized by the Spirit at the tender age of 4, when on July 9, 1959, he first whooped the Gospel (John, Chapter 14) to a church of the faithful at 1372 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn. Then, disaster. His father, whom he calls “a slumlord” and “an exploiter,” left his mother to take up with his half-sister. Cast from the relative middle-class comfort of P.S. 134 on 109th Avenue in Hollis, Queens, he found himself living in the toughest of Brooklyn projects, on the New Lots line to hellish Livonia Avenue station. A fat kid who couldn’t fight or play ball, a proto-Beat reader of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” he rose by scratch and claw through an unwavering sense of personal destiny, thinking fast, talking faster.

The time-honored street triptych of wit, grit, and bullshit, hustle born and bred—what could be more all-American than that? The Candidate has also seen the USA, not from a Chevrolet, but riding shotgun in James Brown’s bus. It was while traveling with Mr. Dynamite that he met his wife, then a backup-singing Famous Flame. Indeed, the Godfather of Soul is already booked to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration—long as the money’s right, of course.

Wouldn’t that be A Day? A wondrous, uplifting Day—a triumph over the brutal, tawdry history that has undermined the utopian presumptions of this New World land since 1619, when the European settlers first brought Africans here in chains.

A truly great, liberating Day. Except for one thing. It’s Al. The Candidate is Al.

In New York, we know Al. We know the hair, the jumpsuit, the medallion, the stomach. We know his no justice, his no peace. We know he once called the Jewish owner of a 125th Street furniture store a “white interloper,” and several weeks later the place was burned down in an arson fire that killed seven people. We know he knows he didn’t pay his taxes, or his rent. (Just last month his travel agent sued him for $193,000, which is a lot of airplane tickets.) We know, too, about Tawana Brawley, how Al believed the story but the grand jury did not, how in the ensuing lawsuit Sharpton claimed he didn’t own his suits but rather only had “access” to them. And we know how, no matter what, this is something for which Al, like Pete Rose, will never apologize.

We also know the so-called New Sharpton, the more statesmanlike, skinnier model. Redemption took more than faith. It took Giuliani. In the face of bellicose Rudy (“a worthy adversary,” Al says), Sharpton emerged as legitimate, necessary, even strangely heroic. Someone had to show some leadership after Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Patrick Dorismond, and there was Al, his hacked-off bouffant flecked with gray, solemnly leading thousands (100 rabbis and Susan Sarandon included) in protest. Not a single stone was thrown. This was the post–Damascus Road Rev, the Al who would spend 90 days in a Sunset Park jail after his arrest in the Vieques-bombing protests, deprived of his cell phone, deep in meditation on Gandhi, Mandela (26 years for him, also no cell phone), MLK, all the avatars of resistance and nonviolence.

We know Al like we know Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, like we know Bernard Goetz, Michael Griffith, Joey Fama, Yusef Hawkins, Yankel Rosenbaum, and Justin Volpe—to name only a few on the long, grim roster of racial strife in this town. Always, Sharpton was there, the often polarizing, sometimes conciliatory point man.

We know that despite his surprising totals in various primaries for senator and mayor, Sharpton has not been elected to anything, not even City Council.

Still, there’s Al, a.k.a. Al Charlatan, bigmouth, rabble-rouser, on Face the Nation, like any other supposedly serious national candidate, reasonably calling for a “multinational agreement” on both Iraq and Liberia. There he is, deploying his Tilden High/pulpit-pounding debating skillz, talking rings around his thick-tongued opponents—more confident than the Lurch-like Kerry, more passionate than the sleepy Lieberman, more generously spirited than the school-marmish Dean, and not as wild-eyed as the vegan, Marianne Williamson–advised Kucinich, about whom the Rev sometimes worries, wondering if the former Cleveland mayor is “out on a weekend pass.”

Yes, it is strange, knowing everything we know about Sharpton, to watch him being smarter and funnier than the rest, and feel, well, proud of him. To know that, hate him or not, he’s our native son, the real New Yorker in the race. Our candidate, our Al.


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