This double-take moment came last month, with Sharpton holding court with reporters at the White House, fresh out of an Oval Office meeting with Obama in his role as co-founder of the bipartisan Education Equality Project.
So far, Sharpton has been to the White House more times, and for more close-up conversations with Obama, than the leaders of other long-established civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League.
And in April, Vice President Joe Biden addressed the annual convention of Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, in New York.
Now the Department of Education is making plans for Sharpton to join Secretary Arne Duncan on a five-city tour this fall — an idea that Duncan’s aides say came directly from the White House after the Oval Office meeting.
For some who have followed Sharpton’s long and controversial career, it’s a head-shaker.
Back in the late ’80s, he was called everything from folk hero to racist and made his name protesting police violence and what he saw as widespread racial injustice in New York and around the country.
But it’s more than that. Obama ran as a sort of anti-Sharpton, the first “post-racial” presidential candidate. To see him reaching out to a figure who was once so divisive makes some wonder what Obama sees in Sharpton.
“This is the perpetual reincarnation and rehabilitation of Al Sharpton. He is a master at that, but there’s a difference between thoughtful change and chameleon expedience. Some people would describe it as having no principles,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. “He’s incisive, but there is a Barnum-like quality about him, and the sucker is being born every minute. I am not in Obama’s mind, so I don’t know what it is that attracts Obama to Al Sharpton.”
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Sharpton brushes off such talk of being a mismatch with Obama. He chalks it up in part to his last-man-standing status among a current generation of civil rights activists — post-King and pre-Obama — but also to his reach, with a seven-day-per-week radio show and frequent TV appearances.
“People want solutions, and it isn’t about the old tribal issues anymore. You deal with the person on the field. Everybody loves Jordan, but LeBron James is the one that is playing,” Sharpton said in an interview with POLITICO.
“It’s not that I am an insider or a confidant of the president, but we have a good working relationship and I have a good relationship with [Obama senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett. We don’t talk every day — I am not on her quick dial — but if I need to reach out, I will call her,” Sharpton said.
White House spokesman Corey Ealons noted that Obama invited Sharpton, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the White House that day to discuss “the urgent need for education reform in our nation’s schools.
“Rev. Sharpton is one of a number of leaders from across the country that this White House has engaged in our continuing effort to stay connected to people and the issues impacting their communities,” Ealons said. “We are working with Rev. Sharpton and many other leaders across the country on this issue, because we need to have as many voices as possible elevating concerns about our children’s future and discussing the impact that a quality education has from cradle to career.”
Sharpton had been invited to the White House before, under bth the Clinton and Bush administrations — and there he was last week, in the front row as Obama announced Sonia Sotomayor as his Supreme Court nominee.
But no previous White House has embraced Sharpton as a spokesman for an issue the way the Education Department is doing now. That speaks to Sharpton’s success as a new voice in the education reform debate — an issue that has teamed him with the conservative Gingrich, as well.
Observers say that Sharpton has slimmed down — literally and figuratively, paring down his more incendiary rhetoric — and now appears to have a seat at the insiders’ table.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Obama would be trying to maintain relationships within the traditional civil rights movement and reaching out to Sharpton,” said Dorian Warren, political science professor at Columbia University. “He is a respected civil rights leader who represents a legitimate constituency: hundreds of thousands of black people. It’s a smart move.”
Yet activist Al remains, and he is still hopscotching across the country, appearing at church pulpits where he often name drops Obama and still staging rallies. He ended a gathering at the White House ellipse where the five-city education tour was announced with the familiar call, “No Justice, No Peace!”
Sharpton admits that he has previously been “more caught up in the drama than the result.” But he says that he knows “the pulse of black America” and has expanded the reach of his National Action Network, which was recently hit with an FEC fine for shoddy bookkeeping during his 2004 presidential campaign.
He notes that he and Obama are only seven years apart — and insists that he is part of a new generation of civil rights leaders that include Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP and Marc Morial of the Urban League.
“I did not come up in the Southern movement experience. I didn’t know anything about the back of the bus,” Sharpton said. “I came up in the Northern, urban experience. A lot of the same old guard that was against me was against Obama.”
At first, however, he played coy, fielding entreaties from both Obama and Hillary Clinton. But by the time the Clinton vs. Obama race ended, Sharpton had become the most vocal, and unequivocal, Obama backer.
He defended Obama against the Rev. Jesse Jackson, toured the country for a voter registration drive and threatened a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee if Florida’s and Michigan’s disputed delegates were seated, the most pro-Obama/anti-Hillary stance of anyone.
It didn’t go unnoticed by the campaign, aides said.
Education Department spokesman Peter Cunningham said the administration welcomes Sharpton’s help, even given his controversial history.
“We all know that he came to national light in relationship to Tawana Brawley and all that,” said Cunningham, referring to the 1987 case in which Sharpton accused police officers of raping a 15-year-old black girl; the case was later dropped.
“But Rev. Sharpton has worked hard to position himself as not just a rabble-rouser but as someone who is trying to engage on a broader range of issues that are affecting his community,” he said. “What Rev. Sharpton brings is enormous credibility in communities that are in desperate need of change.”
Sharpton recalled that he first met Obama while he was still in the Illinois state Senate. They “really got to meet and talk issues” at the 2004 convention, Sharpton said, adding that Obama was “always open to talking,” though they didn’t always agree.
Obama appeared at the National Action Network’s 2007 convention, called into Sharpton’s radio show several times and asked Sharpton for advice in advance of the debate at Howard University. But the most publicmeeting of the two men came in November 2007 at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.
After their sit-down, Sharpton stopped short of endorsing Obama the candidate, yet gave a thumbs up to Obama’s appetite, which doubled as a kind of authentication of Obama’s blackness.
“A man who likes fried chicken and corn bread can’t be all that bad,” Sharpton told the New York Daily News.
For all their seeming differences, Sharpton sees a lot of similarities between him and the president.
“He and I come out of two different worlds in the African-American experience: I come out of activist tradition; he comes out of political tradition. But the fact is that both of us have tried to come up against established feelings and beliefs in our fields,” Sharpton said. “He wanted to expand where politics was, and I wanted to expand the civil rights movement. Some of the same people that gave him problems gave me problems. So there was an understanding.”