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

At a recent party to toast the one-year anniversary of MSNBC’s 6 p.m. hour, one of the news net’s on-air

At a recent party to toast the one-year anniversary of MSNBC’s 6 p.m. hour, one of the news net’s on-air personalities offered up a confession. “I don’t know if I would have brought Al Sharpton on to do a show!” he told the assembled guests.

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The speaker was the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Later, he recalled that he originally took a meeting with MSNBC executives believing that he would be pitching the network on a weekly series. Instead, he was offered a nightly program all his own. He started as a temporary replacement for Ed Schultz at 6 p.m. when Mr. Schultz moved to 10 p.m. in the rejiggering prompted by Keith Olbermann’s departure. Before long, the hour was rechristened PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton.

“The only thing I was worried about was my bosses,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin told The Observer of the decision to name Mr. Sharpton a primary host. “But he’d already been on for a month and a half. If we’d said that he was the permanent host on that first day, I’m not sure we’d have pulled it off.”

MSNBC was willing to let Mr. Sharpton travel (provided he gave enough advance notice to allow for a studio to be provided on the road) and wrote a provision into his contract allowing him to continue his activism, Mr. Sharpton said.

It was less of a leap than it might have appeared. As he pointed out during an interview at his MSNBC office, he’d been a talk-radio host for six years (Keepin’ It Real airs from 8 to 10 p.m. on 1600 AM in New York).

If it weren’t for his civil rights organization, the National Action Network, he added, “I had the background of 50 percent of the people doing this.” But he is Al Sharpton of the National Action Network. He is also the Al Sharpton who enthusiastically fanned a media firestorm 25 years ago with his advocacy on behalf of Tawana Brawley, a teenager who claimed—falsely, it now appears—to have been raped by a group of white men, an incident that cemented the young civil rights leader’s influence and brought him a measure of infamy. He ended up losing a defamation lawsuit filed by an assistant district attorney accused of raping Ms. Brawley and was immortalized by Tom Wolfe as The Bonfire of the Vanities’ “Rev. Reginald Bacon,” a shrewd manipulator of the city’s media. Then, there was his endlessly caricatured tracksuit-and-chains image, immortalized in a parade of Sean Delonas cartoons for Page Six that depicted the reverend as a Violet Beauregarde-like sphere.

Not to mention his unsuccessful, if impressive, run for the presidency in 2004.

Perhaps it was a desire to put his reputation as a firebrand behind him that accounted for Mr. Sharpton’s decidedly sober debut. “His first show was stiff,” Mr. Griffin told the crowd at the PoliticsNation party. “There was no Rev.”

Over the course of his first year on air, though, Mr. Sharpton has managed to uncork those cable-friendly “Rev” qualities—his undisguised political advocacy, for instance, and a compelling style of oratory that finds him punching rhetorical questions with a furious solemnity that lends the daily news churn an unusual hint of gravitas.

Still, his reputation notwithstanding, Mr. Sharpton is far from the angriest man in prime time.

“He’s controversial,” Mr. Griffin told The Observer. “But a lot of people only know him from a few things. You don’t understand that he’s a good person. He’s fair. You don’t want to be judged for just a few things in your life, do you?”

We noted that his missteps had been particularly public and might color potential viewers’ impressions before they even tuned in. “It’s the civil rights movement! He has to do things that he’s misunderstood for. Maybe he’s made a mistake or two—but his heart is in the right place.”

He’s even happy to give airtime to his ideological foes. “I fought with Newt Gingrich,” Mr. Sharpton reminded The Observer at his party. He was puffing on a cigar, his only vice after he adopted a vegetarian diet that brought his weight down to a svelte 150 pounds. (He’d lost weight during his 2001 arrest on the island of Vieques, then gained much of it back while running for president—“room service when you get back to the hotel, South Carolina, fried chicken three times a day”—and lost it, once more, before he even knew he’d be on television each day.) He was looking good.

“I fought with Pat Buchanan,” he added. “And I had a good time with Michael Steele!”

For the significant portion of the nation that identifies as liberal (and the smaller number that watches MSNBC), Rev. Sharpton—cast as a clown and a villain throughout the late 1980s and 1990s—is, at 57, suddenly an establishment figure. “The Rev is only going to grow, because more people are going to accept him,” Mr. Griffin noted. “He’s going to break all these notions of who he is.”

Mr. Sharpton, who early in his career served as the tour manager for James Brown, borrowed more than a hairstyle from his mentor.

According to Mr. Sharpton’s lawyer, Sanford Rubinstein, “he’s the hardest-working man in show business.”

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