Al Sharpton: In The Running

They don't ask just anyone to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton portrayed lawyer Johnnie Cochran, a sushi salesman and one of the three wise men searching for Jesus. He was also confronted with a tracksuit-wearing vision of his former self, even singing a few verses of "I Feel Good" during a respectable James Brown imitation.

The show's producers can draw from any number of cultural cutting edges. So, if they wanted a politician, why go for a guy who's polling at 3 percent? A guy who's never held elected office? A person who has been found guilty of defaming a prosecutor? Why did they go for a traveling preacher known for hair-dos and fashion "don't"s? Why did "Saturday Night Live" ask Al Sharpton to host their latest show?

Maybe, as CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod found out, because he has put himself smack in the middle of the Democratic presidential race by sheer force of personality - illustrating just how far you can go in America if you've mastered the art of the sound bite.

Maybe because, at this stage, the presidential campaign is as much reality show as campaign. It is starting already, as Democrats get closer to voting candidates off the island.

For now, a candidate could get a lot of attention by being entertaining. It's almost unfair to watch Sharpton in a debate format with his opponents. After all, Sharpton is the "Boy Preacher," as he was known as a kid. The presidential hopeful has been celebrated for his prodigious gift as an orator since he was 10.

"He has stood out in the debates, someone who is quick-witted, who sort of makes people laugh, who has a dominating personality in terms of dealing with crisis when they arise in the debate format," University of Maryland Professor Ronald Walters says. "I think a lot of that plays to his acumen as a Baptist preacher and somebody who's very comfortable in this kind of a setting."

To this day, no matter where he finds himself on Sunday morning, the Reverend Al preaches. But if the ability to connect on an emotional level was the only criterion for president, Sharpton could start measuring the Oval Office for curtains right now.

But it's not. There's that pesky little combination of experience, record and political philosophy, which candidates end up getting judged on. Philosophically, Al Sharpton bemoans the Democrats move to the center. He says it is that move that helped make Bill Clinton president twice, and it is where all the party's problems start.

"I think that we lost our way," Sharpton says. "You know, the Bible says, 'What profits a man to gain the world and lose his own soul?' We lost our soul. We stopped speaking to working class people. We stopped speaking for labor. We stopped speaking for minorities. But then we expected them to rally around us after we had abandoned them.

"It's like a father leaving his family and then wondering why no one showed up at his birthday party. Maybe because you left them, and there's nothing to say 'Happy Birthday, Dad' about."

The phrasing is always catchy. But Sharpton's follow-through is sketchy. He's been in the middle of every major racial issue in New York for more than twenty years. He led protest after protest. But he's never held elected office. The reverend ran only for high-profile positions that were out of his grasp.

"If he actually had to do the constituent service, the legislation and so on, the deal making, I don't think he wants to be on that line," newspaper columnist and Yale University lecturer Jim Sleeper says. "I think it tells us that he is silver-tongued. That he is a great producer and promoter of theater. But that it ends there."

Sharpton says his presidential mission isn't misguided – believing he can do more as a president, even an unelected presidential candidate, than as an elected congressman.

"In my capacity as a leader of a civil rights group, I've done all that," he says. "I also think that even running, and I intend to win, but even if I don't, I'm going to do a lot. I'm going to register a lot of voters that I couldn't register if I was just a congressman."

Sharpton is a guy with no experience governing or running a campaign for national elective office on a shoestring budget. This candidate doesn't check his poll results because Sharpton believes talking to the people gives him more insight into the minds of the voters than any poll.

Spend some time with Sharpton in Harlem, N.Y., and it's easy to see his charm. He can't get through lunch without half a dozen requests for his picture. But there, he does not have to lug around the heavy political baggage that he will have to elsewhere.

The case of Tawana Brawley is a subject that may slow his presidential campaign.

Brawley was a 15-year-old girl in a town not far from New York City who hit the headlines when she claimed she was raped by several law enforcement officers and a prosecutor. Sharpton was among those who loudly took her side, in a heated controversy which still resonates in New York. A grand jury ultimately found the charges baseless, and Sharpton was found guilty of defamation and ordered to pay $50,000.

Sharpton never apologized.

But would he be repentant in order to be elected President of the United States?

"No," Sharpton says. "If I were to say that I must stand up and apologize for something that I believe in, no. I would not do that. Why would I do that? Because then who you elected, somebody that would say and do anything just to get in office? We don't need that kind of person in the White House. The next thing I'd be doing is announcing weapons of mass destruction that wasn't there. We're trying to get that kind of guy out of the White House."

And if that isn't enough to make him unelectable, he's also fighting another factor.

"There is the question of whether or not a Sharpton, whose history has been one that represents sort of controversial issues connected to the black community, could be president," says Ronald Walters, who helped run the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign. "I've come to the conclusion that kind of a person can not make it as president of the United States."

Sharpton, however, thinks America is absolutely ready for him to be president of the United States.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people in southern states," he says. "And then we come into Super Tuesday, which has a lot of northern urban cities and urban western cities. So, I think the nomination is nowhere near as unreachable as people think."

He could run strong in South Carolina, where 40 percent of the democratic registered voters are black. And Sharpton could continue to pick up delegates through the winter and spring, which brings him to the Democratic convention next summer.

"I think I roll into Boston, if I'm not the nominee, certainly with leverage," Sharpton says. "Before we go to November, we have to go into Boston in July. And a lot of the disagreements and a lot of the marginalization has to be straightened out."

Which is how a guy with no record, no organization, no money, no polling and a lot of reasons why democrats would shun him, becomes a man to cozy up to.

Al Sharpton doesn't have a college degree. But you don't survive over two decades of protests in New York, including jail time and being stabbed, without earning a PhD in street savvy. So you've got to wonder, what does he got his eye on, if not the presidency?

"I think that he may be attempting to try to become the second sort of Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a sense," Walters says. "I think that it's logical that somebody would have come along to try to do that."

Sharpton, however, says he's not trying to be the most influential black leader in America.

"I think we need a lot of leaders," Sharpton says. "When I was growing up, you had Dr. King and Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall … all at the same time. There are a lot of people that do a lot of different things. I hope to be one of them that does well. But, I don't think we need a one leader for anything."

So, forget about waiting until next November to see who the big winner is. If what Sharpton wants is a national platform or national stage, he's already got it.

  • Rome Neal

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