Unfortunately, the podium didn’t get the message. After the emcee announced “From the great state of New York: the Reverend Al Sharpton!” there was a strained pause before Al’s “unavoidable” departure was announced. Groans filled the room. Senator Ted Kennedy, looking rumpled, said, “That was too bad. I’d been looking forward to hearing him all night long.”
With Rev, you take the downside with the up. Ronald Reagan once said, “Facts are stubborn things.” Not for Al. It isn’t that he’s that much more careless with the truth than most politicians. Rather, as one observer says, “it’s that preacher thing. If it sounds good, he keeps on going.” This proclivity has come up in the campaign, as Al, eager to push his progressive credentials, has claimed he is “the only candidate who is against the death penalty,” and that Howard Dean “has a 100 percent rating from the NRA.”
Informed that Dennis Kucinich is against the death penalty, and that Howard Dean doesn’t actually have an NRA rating (the organization doesn’t rank governors), Al squints. “Hmmm . . . ” he says. “It is good to be accurate. Kucinich is only recently against capital punishment, so I’ll say I’m the only candidate who is historically against the death penalty.” Al did, however, continue to claim Dean had “a 100 percent NRA rating.” Must have just sounded better that way.
Say he’s a trickster, repeat the claim that some think of him as a back-channel Republican supporter (he egregiously endorsed D’Amato in 1986), berate him for all the stupid things he’s either said or tolerated his cohorts saying about Jews, ask him anything about money, like where he gets it and where it goes, and Al just widens his eyes and licks his lips. He’s thick-skinned as a stegosaur—you can’t call him anything he hasn’t been called before. For him, mixing it up, warding off accusations, and generally talking his way out of anything is sport, like speed chess in the park. It is a grand spectacle watching Sharpton run around a hotel room in his underwear, denouncing Mark Green, the one man he seems to truly despise, and going through the Pagones defense yet again, saying, “I don’t know, the man is obsessed with me.” Almost always totally easy about race on the personal, one-to-one level (Wow, the white reporter thinks, Al really likes me), he’s your best friend if there’s ink on the table.
As long as nobody takes his campaign seriously, Sharpton can basically say almost anything. “They need me for the ratings,” he says, noting how deadly the debates would be without him. But if he actually begins to pile up some real numbers, sharks like Dick Morris and Karl Rove will drag those skeletons out of the closet, start flipping the race cards. “Bring them on,” Sharpton trash-talks, quoting the leader of the free world. “Rove pulls a Willie Horton on me, he’ll see—I shoot back.”
Meanwhile, Al keeps the laughs coming. Hearing that Freddy Ferrer was joking about “staying up at night” trying to decide whether to be secretary of State or Defense in the new Al administration, Sharpton frowns, “Well, I got a nice ambassadorship for him. Antarctica!” This is the way it is with Rev: He rides along in the back of a car with two other ministers, one of whom says, “That guy, he’s not white; he’s Cajun.” The other minister says, “Ain’t Cajuns white?” To which Al, engrossed in a conversation on his cell, pipes up, exactly on cue, “He’s kind of half-white. A Cau-Cajun.” In an airport, the new Robert Dallek book about John Kennedy on his lap, Al looks pensive, seemingly pondering the great responsibilities that might lie ahead. Finally, he says, “One thing has really been on my mind . . . ” You wait for the revelation or confession. “If you win the American Idol, what do you win?”
That’s the trap, not to let yourself like him too much. Not to forget he’s Al.
Sharpton was in Shreveport, a gone-bust oil-and-gas burg turned thriving casino town, on a familiar errand. Last March, not far from downtown, where the Stars and Bars still fly on a memorial maintained by the Daughters of the Confederacy, Marquise Hudspeth, a 25-year-old black man who reportedly had been driving erratically, was shot dead in the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store. It was one of several recent police shootings in the area, but the Hudspeth case was different: There were videos. The tapes showed Hudspeth getting out of his car holding what turned out to be a cell phone and being shot in the back several times.
“He fell right about here, then they shot him two more times,” says Dr. Artis Cash, a Pentecostal pastor, pointing to a spot of concrete near the Circle K self-serve pumps. “They called it justifiable force.” That was why Cash called Al.
With something like this, who else was there to call? “I’ve heard some negative things,” Cash admits. “I heard he miscalculated on the Tawana Brawley thing. I heard that he was an informer for the FBI.” But Al had spine, and besides, Cash says with a sudden smile, “he showed up.”
“People said I was an ambulance chaser. I said, ‘Fool, I am the ambulance.’ Now I’m the national ambulance,” says Sharpton. Once he went to Howard Beach, now it was Louisiana. “It is the same,” Al says. “Except for the frequent-flier miles.”
The first time he went down to Shreveport on the Hudspeth shooting, 2,500 people came out to see him. Now, mindful that Jesse Jackson won the 1988 Louisiana primary with almost 36 percent, Al was back, meeting with Marquise Hudspeth’s bereaved mother and wife. Sneaking a glimpse through the window of the small office, you could see the Hudspeths sitting with Al, holding hands, soundlessly praying. Hudspeth’s wife, mother of his two children, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with a blonde rinse, had tears rolling down her face.
“Reverend Sharpton is with the family.” It is one of those charged phrases of recent race matters, a typical Al conundrum, intractably tangled with our perceptions of the man. It usually means someone of color has been shot, likely by a police officer, and that Al is there, offering comfort to the relatives and the assurance that their grievance will not go unheeded. On the other hand, there are dark thoughts, rumors. One of the nastiest whispers about Al is that he arrives at these scenes, sets up the shattered family with his legal buddies, then takes a cut of whatever settlement is made. It is a repellent, ghoulish notion for which there is not a shred of proof, and Sharpton vehemently denies it. But there it is, that shadow you can’t cast out of your consciousness. With Al, there is always a shadow, another side.
Dr. Cash promised a full house for a fund-raiser, but the room is only a third filled. Al is not surprised. You can always get a crowd for a rally, but writing checks is a whole other deal. After the usual honorifics (“Welcome this pilgrim from the courts of glory . . . this twenty-first-century prophet”), Al is back onstage, working the stump sermon, lambasting Clarence Thomas, who voted against the recent affirmative-action measure, saying that just because a man is “your color doesn’t make him your kind.”
It isn’t anything Al hasn’t said 50 times this week. But then, quieter, unexpectedly, he leans forward: “You know . . . people ask me: Why don’t I cut my hair? Because this is me. This is who I am.”
Suddenly, something registers, the feeling that he really means it—as if Sharpton, imperfect vessel, after listening to a ceaseless soundtrack of himself since that first 4-year-old preaching gig, has actually heard what he says, and come to some sort of personal epiphany. It is as if the various warring Als—the hustler Al, the good-in-spite-of-himself Al, the helping Al—have merged to reach across the divide of race and his own contradictions, in a real attempt to make himself more perfect, and us along with him.
Or maybe that’s just what he wants us to believe. With Al, you go round and round.
The stump sermon is over now, the money-gathering segment of the program has begun. The pickings are slim. No wonder Al’s FEC filings are a joke; even with the biblical exhortations about how “the Lord loves a cheerful giver,” most of his envelopes are filled with cookie-jar money.
Hearing Bush asks $20,000 from supporters who want to pose with him, Al tries the same thing, albeit on a less pricey level.
“Ten bucks?” the candidate is heard yelling. “Twenty grand for Bush, and I’m only ten bucks? I’m way better-looking than him!”
A few days later, Sharpton is back in the city, walking across Seventh Avenue, renamed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard after his greatest hero, the flamboyant preacher of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and defrocked congressman. The Rev talks a lot about Adam Powell these days, saying he once thought the minister’s famous catchphrase “Keep the faith, baby” was shallow, but now he realizes the power of it, even compared with Jesse’s “Keep hope alive.” This is because, Al says, when it comes down to it, “hope can only take you so far.” Faith never ends.
Naming thoroughfares for great and beloved figures is a Harlem tradition. There are street signs honoring Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. Might there someday by a Reverend Al Sharpton Boulevard?
“If I get elected, they’ll have to,” Al says, warming to the idea. But right now he is pretty hungry and on his way to Amy Ruth’s restaurant on 116th Street, which is owned by his former chief of staff Carl Redding. In the old knock-around style, the food at Amy’s is named after various uptown political and showbiz personalities. They’ve got dishes called “The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III,” “The Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker,” “The Percy Sutton,” “The Roberto Ramirez.” But “The Rev. Al Sharpton” is at the top, the first item on the menu.
“Chicken and waffles—that’s me,” Al says. “Maybe I’ll order that today.”