Poisonous and Brilliant
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Boston, Mass. — Al Sharpton gave one of the most clever and electrifying speeches in recent convention history. He was better than — certainly as good as — Jesse Jackson at his best.
And Sharpton had two races, of course, during the Democratic primaries: the ostensible race; and the race against Jesse Jackson, to be President of Black America. Sharpton clearly won the latter race.
The mainstreaming of Sharpton has long been complete. It could be seen in 2000, when the major Democrats — Gore, Bradley, Hillary — came to kiss his ring. And a few weeks ago, John Kerry referred to him as the “moral compass” of the Democratic party.
Gone are the sweatsuits and the funky hair; in their places are pinstriped suits and slicked-back hair. Sharpton looks like a banker.
Introducing him, an unseen woman said “the Rev. Al Sharpton” in a down-home way, setting the tone for this address.
The speech — the English — of Sharpton is quite interesting: a mixture of New York and southern. You hear both as he speaks: “paw-ty” (party); “wah” (war); “Dimocrats.”
Before long, he was shouting, screaming more loudly than Jesse Jackson had an hour before, but not screaming as loudly as Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the decibel king of the night, and of the convention. (See my Impromptus for more.)
Sharpton duly mentioned Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the Revolution. Black, you know. Years ago, I wrote a little piece about my education, and said that I had been taught that Crispus Attucks had won the War single-handedly! (From thereon in, it was all slavery, McCarthyism, and Japanese internment.)
Discharging political obligations, Sharpton praised Kerry and Edwards. Then he launched into a Michael Moore-esque critique of Bush and the war. Or Jimmy Carteresque — or Ted Kennedyesque. One might simply say Democratic.
Even the words in these speeches seem identical: “We went from unprecedented international support and solidarity on September 12, 2001, to hostility and hatred as we stand here tonight. How did we squander …?” Those sentences came from Sharpton’s speech; but they had been heard many times before.
Of course, no one is quite as entertaining as Sharpton. He said (and my quote is rough), “Imagine I told you we had to evacuate this building because of an emergency; but when we got outside, it turned out there was no emergency; and I said to you, ‘Oh, never mind: I just wanted some fresh air.’”
That was Sharpton on Bush and WMDs.
He did raise an issue that has been curiously off the table during this campaign: Supreme Court nominations. The next president should have a few (although we said that last time, didn’t we?) Sharpton opined that “if George W. Bush had selected the Court in 1954 [the Court that decided Brown], Clarence Thomas would have never got to law school.”
The crowd went wild; it applauded long; and Sharpton didn’t crack a smile — he just stood there, lips pursed, as if to say, “Yeah, I’m bad.”
He remarked that we spend “more money on metal detectors than on computers in school.” Nice line. If it’s true, whom should he be lecturing? Not Republicans, I trust.
And he had an interesting riff on immigration policy, demanding the same rules for Mexicans, Haitians, and Canadians. That was an expression of a racial grievance, pure and simple.
He then had a puzzling line about Hispanics in particular: “No one gave them an English test before we sent them to Iraq to fight for America.” I believe that was a shot at those of us who criticize bilingual education, but it was hard to tell.
He made sure to holler about the issue of D.C. voting rights — but then he launched into the meat of his speech, which was a rebuke of President Bush’s speech before the Urban League. It was spectacular (the rebuke, that is). He pretended to address Bush directly — “Mr. President,” he said, even looking around, as if searching for him.
Why had black Americans given up on the Republican party? The Republicans had promised them 40 acres and a mule. Blacks stuck with the Republicans till Hoover. But still no mule — “and we’re going to ride this [Democratic] donkey as far as we can” (or words to that effect).
The applause and cheering went on forever, as Sharpton stood there — master of all he surveyed — with his lips pursed. Even Jesse Jackson was on his feet, applauding, like a good sport (although he must have been dying inside?).
Sharpton knows how to handle a crowd: He repeatedly tried to tamp down its applause, so he could maintain a rhythm. Perhaps his only misstep was to refer to Illinois’s Barack Obama as “Obama Barack” — but haven’t we all done that this week?
Friends, Al Sharpton has a gift, no doubt. No point not acknowledging it. Journalists — including conservatives — love him. Like Charlie Rangel — a diehard apologist for the brute and murderer Castro — he’s a hoot to be around, charming, mirthful. And a quote factory.
Remember this one? “The Giuliani administration is like the Rocky Mountains: The higher you go, the whiter it gets.”
But I am ever-mindful of Sharpton’s record. I addressed it in a longish piece four years ago (“Power Dem”). To this day, he has not apologized to Steven Pagones, the man whose life Sharpton almost ruined by accusing him of raping and mutilating Tawana Brawley (who had perpetrated a hoax). He incited — he arguably incited — murder at Freddie’s Fashion Mart. Sharpton could not help whipping up an already dangerous crowd by denouncing “white interlopers.”
He is poison — all the more poisonous because of his talents. On Wednesday night, he told the convention, “There is a vicious spirit in the body politic of this country.” Yes, there is.
(Posted on July 29, 2004)