Reverend President!?

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.

The ladies drinking sweet iced tea under the cypress trees beside Lake Marion at the Edisto Fork United Methodist Church picnic in Orangeburg, South Carolina, say they don’t think all that much about Tawana Brawley. “The man believed a young girl, what is wrong with that?” says sister Ruth, from down the road in Bamberg. Down here, there were plenty of things to worry about besides Tawana Brawley.

As everyone, white and black, tells you, South Carolina was and is the “heart of the Confederacy.” It was off the coast on Sullivan’s Island—the black Ellis Island—that an estimated 50 percent of African slaves first arrived in America. The Civil War’s first shot was fired in Charleston harbor, at Fort Sumter. With many streets still named for Confederate generals, this state sent Strom Thurmond to the Senate for 48 years and would have sent him another 48 if he’d lived that long.

“It’s all race politics in South Carolina—all race, all the time,” says Kevin Gray, Sharpton’s thorny S.C. campaign coordinator. In the late sixties, Gray and his sister were the first blacks to attend his formerly all-white local elementary school. Decades later, when his own children entered elementary school in South Carolina, it was all black, or, as he says, “segregated again.” This was the sort of “progress” being made down here, says Gray, who once ran as a Green Party candidate for governor, burning a Confederate flag on the statehouse steps while wearing a bulletproof vest.

But race politics cuts both ways. South Carolina, where as much as 45 percent of the primary electorate will be black, is the Rev’s best shot in next year’s primaries. A big Sharpton showing could land him on the cover of Time (the grail when you’re Al). Then, so goes the scenario, the eventual Democratic nominee, mindful of the conventional wisdom that he has no chance without a clean sweep of the black vote (even Gore, the stiff, got 92 percent), will have no choice but to talk to the Rev.

Speculation on what Al wants in return for his support falls into two general camps. The cynical, anti-Rev position says he’ll want plenty of cash and a private campaign jet. The nice-Al version, as promoted by Sharpton himself, entails inclusion of his progressive issues in the Dem platform and a prime-time slot at the convention to deliver his big-tent message of uplift.

So it is this steamy summer morning in Orangeburg, inside the Reverend Hayes Gainey’s clapboard United Methodist Church. Sharpton sits beside the pulpit as Gainey, stout and genial, rises to announce the guest speaker. “Welcome this titan of right, this truth-seeker, this Gospel preacher, this world teacher, this grassroots man,” Gainey extols, offering an introduction Dick Gephardt will never hear.

“Raise up this man! This man of God, sent by God!”

Al begins slowly, humbly. But with 44 years of practice (his fourth-grade teachers forbade him from writing “Rev. Al Sharpton” on his papers), he is soon rolling, delivering what has become, more or less, his stump sermon, easily the most effective, even stirring, political oratory of the current season.

A couple of days earlier, asked by the lefty editors of The Nation how he felt about faith-based government programs, Al declared the separation of church and state inviolate, saying, “Let the church into it, there’s going to be proselytizing.” But this is a different crowd.

“Once, we had the KKK,” he declares. “Now we got the RRR, the rich, right-wing Republicans! Well, let me tell you something. It is time for the Christian right to meet the right Christians!” Then, employing one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the Socratic self-cross-examination, a one-man call-and-response, the Rev shouts, Question! They ask me, Sharpton! Why you running? You can’t win! … I say: Nine fools running, eight gonna lose … But you get a lot more out of losing with me than winning with anyone else.”

Then Al is talking about the 2000-election fiasco, one more issue other Democrats seem to have punted on. Sharpton, however, is not letting it go. “They say get over it,” he booms. “How can I get over it when it wasn’t so long ago people right here in this room weren’t even allowed to vote! … Our grandmothers and -fathers had to fight for the vote! So don’t tell me to take something which is soaked in the blood of the innocents and get over it!”

Hallelujahs erupt. Of all his issues of Republican inequity, this is the one that gets the most response. The election: stolen from all Americans but felt more acutely by blacks, who have always loved this country more than it has loved them. Finishing with a flourish, Al melds the story of David to his own. “If God could take a shepherd boy and make him the king of Israel,” he yells, before the piano starts up and he hurls his stumpy body into an obligatory 360-degree spin, “then God could take a boy from the housing project—from the Brooklyn ghetto!—and have him beat George Bush in 2004!”

It is hard to figure how well Sharpton’s doing. Most recent polls have him second in South Carolina, behind the fast-fading Joseph Lieberman. Nationally, he fluctuates between 3 and 6 percent, decidedly a “second tier” candidate for sure, but ahead of supposed pros like John Edwards and Bob Graham. Not that polls matter when it comes to his chances, says Sharpton. When he got 32 percent in the mayoral primary, the morning papers had him at 14 percent. “My voters are not plugged into the Internet like Dean’s. You call them on the phone and start asking a lot of questions, they hang up,” the Rev explains. But this could be moot, because, as many claim, Sharpton is not really running for president of America but rather for president of Black America—i.e., against Jesse Jackson.

Jesse got a combined 10 million primary votes in his ’84 and ’88 campaigns, trouncing Michael Dukakis in several states including Michigan, carrying New York City. Matching that seems out of reach for Sharpton, who went to work for Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket at age 12 and has long maintained a complicated relationship with the man he once called “Big Rev,” as opposed to his own “Li’l Rev.”

More recently, however, Li’l Rev Al, always on the short end of the substantialness stick, began hinting, none too discreetly, that Jackson’s time was done, likening his mentor to Muhammad Ali—“still the champ, except he can’t fight no more.” However, even if Al carries around a printout of the 2004 primary calendar with Jackson’s ’88 totals handwritten in the margin, he rejects the idea that his main goal is to “beat Jesse.”

“How come if it’s two black guys, they’ve got to always be against each other, trying to beat on each other? I’m building on what Jesse did.”

This generational angle is seconded by Bill Lynch, the semi-legendary political operative who worked for Jackson and now calls Sharpton “my present oar in the water.” Asked if Sharpton’s ability to make you laugh but not cry—as Jesse made people cry in his eighties convention speeches—constitutes a significant difference between the two men, Lynch agrees, offering the surprising conclusion that “this ends up in Al’s favor.” Sixties civil-rights-movement language retains moral power, Lynch says (and resonates with “Kumbaya”-singing white liberals), but young people “don’t want to hear that old stuff.” It doesn’t matter which Rev will get a bigger welcome in heaven, Lynch says. His job is to get votes. Al, at 48, shockingly the youngest candidate in the race, makes the best connection to the “hip-hop generation.” The 19–35 voter is the “wild card” in this election, Lynch says. No reason they won’t be for Al.

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 “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.”

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.”

Reverend President!?