Al Sharpton will forever be his own biggest fan, blithely forgiving himself every trespass against truth and decency in his pursuit of video face-time.
Almost equally adoring is his perennial entourage of supporters in the National Action Network; and a significant minority of black voters, particularly in New York, admires him, too. But lately, the clever reverend has developed a substantial following in another, more powerful quarter.
As a newly declared candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Mr. Sharpton has garnered the chortling support of almost every conservative pundit in the nation. They’re suddenly as eager to see Mr. Sharpton on television as the reverend himself. Republicans who once condemned him as a blight upon America, and wished to see him banished from the airwaves, are now hoping that he will never disappear-at least not until sometime after Election Day 2004.
He hasn’t always been quite so popular on the right. Consider the last Presidential election year, when conservatives regularly tried to use Mr. Sharpton-with some justification-to bludgeon both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. Back then, for instance, the National Review published a profile outlining the record of “hate and pain” that can be attributed to the “civil-rights” leader. Its author, Jay Nordlinger, rehashed the whole sorry story, from the Tawana Brawley hoax, the Crown Heights rioting, the Freddie’s fire and the alliance with the late Khallid Muhammad, to the recent era of “rehabilitation” overseen by Ed Koch.
This year, the National Review anticipates a Sharpton campaign with delight-not because conservative opinion of the minister has changed, but because his wit will be turned against the Democrats. “Really, there should be no place for a man with Al Sharpton’s record at the American political table,” wrote columnist Rod Dreher last January. “And yet, I am excited about his campaign. ‘Let Sharpton be Sharpton!’ is ever on my lips these days.” In Mr. Dreher’s view, conservatives should “rally behind a Sharpton candidacy” to expose liberal double standards-and as payback for the implosion of Trent Lott.
So conservatives such as Bill O’Reilly are encouraging Mr. Sharpton. Asked by NBC’s Tim Russert whether Mr. Sharpton is qualified to be President, the no-spin Fox News host replied, “I don’t know. Maybe-maybe he’d surprise us.” (The transcript doesn’t say whether he was laughing.)
Crossfire host Tucker Carlson likewise promotes the Sharpton campaign at every opportunity, calling himself a “Sharpton fan,” wishing the demagogic minister “best of luck” and praising him as “a great Democrat,” all with tongue ever so subtly in cheek. (It wasn’t too long ago that Mr. Carlson scolded Governor George Pataki for descending to “suck up to Al Sharpton on television.”) The ultra-right Newsmax.com features the candidate on the cover of its printed monthly magazine’s April issue, under the headline “Sharpton’s Revenge.” The objects of revenge are Democrats-specifically (reflecting the obsessions of Newsmax and its patron, Richard Mellon Scaife) Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Indeed, according to the Newsmax account of his campaign, Mr. Sharpton was recently “lavished with praise” by radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bob Grant. What earned him this outburst of admiration? He had told Newsday ‘s Jimmy Breslin: “The next time anybody wants to know about Tawana Brawley, I’m going to ask them, ‘Do you ask Teddy Kennedy about Chappaquiddick? Do you ask Hillary Clinton about her husband?'”
That Mr. Sharpton might someday become the weapon of choice for Republicans was foretold long ago, when he sold his endorsement in the 1986 Senate race to Alfonse D’Amato, and more recently when he sabotaged Democrat Mark Green in the 2001 New York Mayoral race.
His grudge against the Democrats is numbingly familiar: insufficient “respect” for him. He camouflages his demand for attention with inventive complaints: There are no blacks in the U.S. Senate, he carps, without mentioning that the last black Senator was Illinois Democrat Carol Mosely Braun, or that the Democrats nominated an African-American for the Senate in Texas last year. There is no black governor, he says, without remembering that his own state’s Democrats nominated Carl McCall, who got no help from him. Smart as he is, Mr. Sharpton must understand what a second Bush term would mean for affirmative action, the minimum wage, the earned-income tax credit and other issues he professes to advocate. But Bill O’Reilly gets what he’s really about:
“Look, Al Sharpton is running for President because it jacks up his lecture fees, O.K., because he gets on television every two minutes, which he enjoys. He’ll probably get a game show …. So look, what’s the downside?” For him, perhaps none; but for the community he professes to cherish, the “downside” of his election-year carnival could be harsh indeed.
· Erratum: In last week’s column, a typo led readers to believe that Bechtel’s new contract to rebuild Iraq is worth $680 billion. The correct figure is $680 million.