A Reasonable Man: How Track-Suited Firebrand Al Sharpton Became the Most Thoughtful Voice on Cable

Like his office, Rev. Sharpton’s House of Justice is decorated with images from his past. The Newsweek cover is there, as is a New York Daily News front page, “GIVE ME THE TRUTH,” about the reverend’s quest to learn about whether he was biologically related to Senator Strom Thurmond. Hung above the stage, to the left of the podium, is a framed picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., looking down and to the right. It appears he’s gazing approvingly at whomever is speaking.

Still, Mr. Sharpton is looking for real approval these days—and not just from his amen corner.

“We can get 300 or 400 in the room on Saturday,” he explained, “and 50,000 more on the radio. Okay. When do you stop playing to the 300 people in the room that’ll clap at anything you say? And when do you deal with the 50,000 that are listening, half of whom may not be on your side but would be if you make a sound argument?”

In September 2011, its first full month on air, PoliticsNation averaged 598,000 nightly viewers; in the first two weeks of this month, the show is hovering around 912,000 per evening. Viewership in the 25-54 demographic has nearly doubled as well. (The program comes in second in its time slot among cable news outlets in both metrics, behind Fox News’s Special Report with Bret Baier.) While Mr. Sharpton claims that his Saturday-morning audience is tuning in, PoliticsNation executive producer Matt Saal described the viewership of MSNBC as, traditionally, affluent. “He speaks for people who aren’t of means. He’s making sure we’re speaking not necessarily to those people—but for those people.”

Though he’s making fewer headlines these days, Mr. Sharpton finally seems to be achieving a measure of respectability. Knowing what he knows now, he was asked, does he regret anything about the fiery rhetorical style he employed back in the day?

“So, I was in my 30s when people first met me,” he said, “and I would say things, or react, or be personal. You learn over time, well, you may be more effective not making personal attacks. Not because it looks better—but because you may really want to win the case. You may really want to win people over. So, the question is, is you being flippant more important than winning? Or is winning more important than you being flippant?”

He leaned back, almost horizontal, in his desk chair.

“I regret personalizing the battles rather than keeping it on public policy,” he said.

By way of example, Mr. Sharpton recalled that he’d once had a habit of referring to then-mayor Ed Koch as “Bull Koch,” in reference to the Civil Rights-era scourge Bull Connor. “There are a lot of people who supported Koch who don’t see him as Bull Koch but would have supported us on not cutting services. Again, the question is, when do you put winning as your goal rather than just being flippant?”

Indeed, if anything, Mr. Sharpton seems not to take politics personally at all these days; he has dinner with Bill O’Reilly several times a year and is friends with MSNBC morning host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough. “He’s not a phony,” Mr. Sharpton noted. “And I get along with any conservative if they believe what they’re saying.”

Would a younger Al Sharpton have been able to say that?

“I don’t think I would have said that. I would have gotten along with them. But I wouldn’t have said it.”

Now that he’s adopted a more conciliatory tone and taken his seat among the media elites, Mr. Sharpton was asked if he’d spotted any likely successors for the role of chief civil rights bomb-thrower he played so effectively for so long. He declined to name anyone specific, but he noted that whoever came after him would have opportunities he had never imagined. “A guy said to me soon after we started PoliticsNation, he said, ‘Rev. Sharpton, I always saw you as an activist, you came out of the post-King movement, would Dr. King have had a radio and talk show?’

“I told him that there was no MSNBC in Dr. King’s time, so we will never know!”