This said, Al finds himself in a unique Oedipal sandwich between two generations of Jacksons, since much of his platform can be traced to the ideas of Jesse Jackson Jr., the congressman from Illinois. Jackson Jr., who is without doubt the only member of the House of Representatives to recommend eighteen books either by or about Hegel on his Website, is the author of A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights. Five hundred pages of very tiny type, Jackson Jr.’s book, written with Frank Watkins, proposes to be nothing less than a political history of race in America and actually comes close. It was a book he had to read, says Brooklyn College dropout Al.
“That was the deal if Al wanted me to work for him,” says Watkins, a soft-spoken former seminary student who held high-ranking jobs on the elder Jackson’s eighties campaigns and now manages Sharpton’s. Al had to agree to take Jesse Sr.’s path: running, and staying, in the Democratic Party. He also had to read A More Perfect Union—Al claims to have done so three times—and to consider championing three of the amendments to the Constitution proposed by Jesse Jr. These are House Joint Resolutions 28 to 30, which, respectively, seek to federalize “the fundamental right of citizens to vote”; “the right to equal, high quality public education”; and Â“health care of equal high quality.” This was fine, said Al, since he is in favor of large outlays for public ed (even if his two daughters attend Brooklyn’s private Poly Prep) as well as single-payer health care.
The voting amendment causes the most stir, since, as Al points out, “most people think they’ve already got the right to vote.” But voting remains a state’s right, which A More Perfect Union argues is just one more bit of unfinished business from the Civil War. Sure as John C. Calhoun, Confederate ideologue, lies moldering in his grave, this is the reason, Sharpton says, the Supreme Court could, under the law, decide that Katherine Harris had the power to cut off the Florida vote, thereby making George W. Bush president.
Walking through the Capitol, Jesse Jackson Jr., a very young-looking 38, is talking about “the strong rationale” for Al Sharpton’s run. Stopping in the old House of Representatives, now the National Statuary Hall, Jackson pauses in front of a likeness of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a vice-president of the Confederacy most famous for “the Cornerstone Speech,” which proudly declared the new southern nation to be founded on “the great physical, philosophical and moral truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery . . . is his natural and normal condition.” The fact that Stephens’s statue (along with those of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee) stands in this hall reserved for heroes of the Union is reason enough for Al Sharpton to run for president, says Jackson.
Yeah, but . . . does Jackson think Sharpton, loudmouth of Harlem and Brooklyn, with more baggage than a Samsonite showroom, is capable of articulating these constitutional and moral arguments? Is Al up to it?
Jackson, who has spoken harshly of his father’s reported adultery, smiles and, paraphrasing II Corinthians, says, “Humans are all created imperfect vessels . . . all we can hope to do, with God’s help, is to become more perfect.”
Life on the road suits him, says the Rev, God’s own imperfect vessel. It has ever since his advance-man days with James Brown. He misses his family and the nice corner house in Ditmas Park. But wherever he opens his suitcase, that’s his home. Today, silk suit in the closet, a white undershirt loose across his still-ample chest, the Rev lies on a couch in the Presidential Suite of the Sheraton in Shreveport, Louisiana, remembering when he met Martin Luther King Jr.
“I was 9 or 10, still the Boy Preacher,” says the Rev. “The Vietnam War was on. Dr. King had just begun to speak out against it. ‘You’re too young to get drafted’, he told me. ‘But you’re old enough to join the fight.’ ”
Growth has become a watchword in this current Sharptonian episode. After the Rev’s recent boffo performance at a forum on gay marriage, the moderator, erstwhile ABC kingpin Sam Donaldson, grabbed him. “You’ve grown so much,” Donaldson said giddily, mirroring the banter of Bob Schieffer and Dan Balz after a recent Al appearance on Face the Nation. The pair couldn’t get over how “clever” the Candidate had become.
“That’s how it is,” Sharpton says. “They say I’ve got talent, like I’m a talking seal. They never say I also have a brain . . . happens all the time, being patronized.”
But growth, real growth, is a subjective thing. Could Al get past race? Could he truly cross over? In South Carolina, the Rev spoke almost exclusively to blacks. His positions on Nader-like “white” issues are perfunctory at best. In true New Yorker style, he hasn’t driven a car in years, yet dimly congratulated himself for bringing up ethanol at a recent debate on the environment, even if it was clear he knew next to nothing about fuel economy, fossil or otherwise.
Al says politics as usual will not unseat Bush, that it will take a “movement.” But could Al (who claims that Dean’s surge only strengthens his hand, because it kills John Kerry, and soon everyone will realize there’s no way blacks are voting for a dour Vermonter) organize such a movement? According to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Al reported having raised $137,415 (only $14,010 of which was gathered in New York), compared with the $10 million–plus in Dean’s bankbook and Bush’s $35,148,847. Even bizarro Lyndon LaRouche has raised more dough than Al.
But this is how Sharpton does it, under the radar. Apprised that his supposed press officer never returned a call, he says, “Just ring me.” Told that it felt a little, er, ad hoc to call a presidential candidate on his cell phone to find out what was going on in his campaign, Sharpton seems hurt. “Don’t you like to talk to me?”
His seat-of-the-pants method has led to some awkward moments, such as the recent Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. The obligatory red, white, and blue balloons looked festive, the booze flowing, but there was an unmistakable tension in the air. The Dems, widely seen as too impotent to exploit Bush’s post-Iraq weakness or stop the Republicans from dismantling the last remnants of the New Deal, are in desperation mode.
Al planned to use the dinner to take one more swat at the ruling Democratic Leadership Council, the Clintonite faction the Rev charges has brought the party so far to the right that its members are nothing but a bunch of “elephants in donkey coats.” The fact that the Republicans will stage their convention in New York, a mile from ground zero, “right in our house,” while the Dems will be trundling off to “good ol’ boy” Boston was one more sign of the DLC’s “loser mentality,” Al says. If the DLC weren’t so asleep at the switch, it would have gone south, to Miami, or even Jacksonville, which, after all, was “the scene of the crime.”
“We have to slap that donkey,” Al likes to shout. “Slap that donkey until it wakes up and kicks George Bush out of the White House!”
But Al never said those things, not on that night. He had to be back in New York, and with the last shuttle leaving at 8:30 and the DNC dinner not beginning until 7, it was going to be tight. As party chairman Terry McAuliffe introduced fat-cat donors, Al nibbled at his salad, looked at his watch. Then, carrying his own bags, he left. No big deal, he said, waving as he went out the hotel door to the loud cheers of bellhops and cabdrivers. “My vote’s out here anyhow.”