‘NEW GENERATION OF TOMS’
Sharpton made some of his most inflammatory remarks of this campaign season Thursday night, disparaging front-runner Dean’s record on race issues and mocking African-American leaders who endorse white candidates as a “whole new generation of (Uncle) Toms.” Some of Sharpton’s remarks drew standing ovations, despite the fact that he showed up about two hours late to the 38th Annual NAACP Connecticut State Conference where he was the keynote speaker. Sharpton’s attack on Dean follows the former Vermont governor’s recent endorsement by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). “Let’s look at Dean’s record,” Sharpton said. “I ain’t going to argue with Jesse’s son. I’m running against Dean. … Dean said that affirmative action should have nothing to do with race. He said, ‘No, I don’t believe that anymore.’ Well, good, when did you change your mind? I believe in conversions. I’m a preacher. But I want to know where you was when you fell off the horse on the road to Damascus.” Sharpton went on to say that Dean had injected race into the campaign: “If you hadn’t brought it up, I wouldn’t have looked it up,” he said, explaining that Dean’s comments on race at a Congressional Black Caucus debate in Baltimore earlier this year prompted Sharpton to do some research. “Now if you change your mind, good, but don’t act like you were always there, and ignore the fact that some of us always was. I always fought for affirmative action,” said Sharpton. After the speech, I asked Sharpton if he would bring his attacks against to Dean to a national stage, such as a debate. He said: “If he (Dean) brings it up, I will certainly bring it up. I think he has a responsibility if he brings up race to discuss his record there and if he had not brought it up it wouldn’t be an issue. It was fair game when he particularly brought it up attacking others but not having dealt with what he claimed he had dealt with.” African-American leaders endorsing white candidates were not only targeted, they were also mocked by Sharpton: “I’m endorsing so and so. … you are not doing nothing but playing with yourself. These people are not discussing you; they need a few cosmetic pictures to add to their profile. I’m ready to put out ads telling all Uncle Toms at least send me part of the money you get from selling out because if I wasn’t in the race they wouldn’t be offering you nothing. I put a whole new generation of Toms in business.” I asked Sharpton if he was referring to any one African-American leader in particular. “Those that have gained from the struggle but do not participate in the struggle are who I’m talking about,” he said. I also asked Sharpton if he was personally hurt that the son of Rev. Jesse Jackson did not endorse him. “In politics, it’s not really that surprising.”
A BLAST AT SCHWARZENEGGER
Sharpton even found time to attack the governor-elect of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I defend a young girl and you act like it’s a scandal. I guess if I had fondled her and her girlfriends you would have made me the governor of California,” said Sharpton in reference to reporters who question his actions during the Tawana Brawley rape hoax in the 1980s.
As mentioned already, Sharpton was late, very late for his speech Thursday night. He was scheduled to speak at 7:45 p.m. He didn’t arrive till around 10 p.m. “This is bad, this is really really bad,” said one organizer during the more than two-hour wait. At one point, the choir started singing “We Shall Overcome.” Organizers and police officers kept telling the press and parishioners “just five more minutes.” “You said five minutes two hours ago,” said one angry parishioner who left. It’s not clear why Sharpton was two hours late. A police officer told me was stuck in traffic, but I heard one of his staffers say it was because a private meeting Sharpton had beforehand. Nonetheless, Sharpton’s tardiness has become a trademark of the campaign.
REACTION TO JACKSON COMMENTS
Sharpton came in for some harsh comments over his criticism of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. for backing Dean. Perhaps the harshest attack came from Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile, who spoke with the Washington Post: “I think Dean’s record on civil rights issues, on affirmative action — his willingness to talk about race in a very inclusive way — has been refreshing,” said Brazile, who is African-American. “These long-shot candidates, all they’re doing is taking aim at the top tier because they’re frustrated. I think Reverend Sharpton should keep his focus on ideas.”
It’s the question Democratic leaders feared the day the Sharpton entered the presidential race — could he spoil it? It’s happened before in other elections. Just ask Mark Green who lost the mayoral election to Michael Bloomberg in part because Sharpton would not endorse Green. Sharpton released a statement this afternoon responding to the news that Democratic Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (son of Rev. Jesse Jackson), planned to endorse Dean for president. In that statement, Sharpton criticized the former Vermont governor for his comments on affirmative action and his record on gun rights. “Howard Dean’s opposition to affirmative action, his current support for the death penalty and historic support of the NRA’s agenda amounts to an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color in this country,” Sharpton said. Sharpton used a remark made by Dean on CNN in 1995 to highlight his point: “Howard Dean was asked in an interview by CNN’s Jean Meserve about his stance on affirmative action. His response: ‘You know, I think we ought to look at affirmative action programs based not on race but on class, and opportunity to participate.’ Meserve responded that Dean ‘sounded like Newt Gingrich.’ Dean’s response: ‘...I don’t think it ought to be done by race.’” The Dean camp and Jackson’s office had no idea about the Sharpton press release until I put calls into their campaign. The Dean camp responded first, citing the candidate’s record on affirmative action: “Governor Dean has always been a strong supporter of affirmative action, and he believes there is still a great need for affirmative action in America.” Rep. Jackson’s office questioned Sharpton’s motives. Here a few excerpts from the Jackson press release: “I also don’t understand Rev. Sharpton’s attempt to introduce ‘race’ into the campaign by using such rhetoric as ‘anti-black’ with respect to Gov. Dean. I challenge all of the other candidates to urge Rev. Sharpton to resist using such inflammatory rhetoric. “Such rhetoric will not contribute to defeating George W. Bush in 2004. Indeed, it will insure his re-election.” Sharpton’s dismay over Jackson’s endorsement of Dean goes much deeper then some comments made on CNN. Jackson was one of the architects of Sharpton’s presidential platform. Jackson also allowed his communications director, Frank Watkins, to be Sharpton’s campaign manager. But Watkins left the Sharpton campaign because of structural disagreements and financial reasons. Watkins has since returned to Jackson’s office. Whether Sharpton’s attacks on Dean and Jackson will have any effect on the outcome of the race is to be determined. But Tuesday’s events are a good example of how Sharpton refuses to be ignored during this campaign.
“Hardball’s Battle for the White House” series hosted Sharpton on Monday night. The show was broadcast live from the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It was a must-see event, and tickets went fast. I overheard a couple of faculty members from the Kennedy School of Government talking about how people were complaining that they couldn’t get tickets. But the show must go on, and what a show it was. From my scorecard, I had Sharpton winning three rounds and “Hardball” host Chris Matthews getting the better of Sharpton in two rounds. Sharpton’s scorecard obviously read different. He told me he won three rounds, tied one, and admitted Mathews won one round during the hourlong interview. Nonetheless, Matthews did hit Sharpton hard when he asked the reverend to explain how he would pay for his health-care plan. Sharpton tried to explain but kept talking around the issue without providing a concrete explanation, and Matthews called him on it. They don’t call the show “Hardball” for nothing. Sharpton also talked himself into a pickle when the issue of Puerto Rican independence came up. Though not an issue that has been talked about during national debates, Sharpton’s view was clearly out of touch with both Matthews and most of the crowd. The reverend shined the brightest when he was able to steer the crowd on his side. He did this by using clever political commentary while adding a joke or two along the way. For the most part, Sharpton seemed cool and collected throughout the interview. I asked Matthews if Sharpton’s quick wit made it more difficult to interview him. “He’s certainly the most charismatic of the candidates I’ve so far done. I did challenge him but you know he’ll go head to head with you on issues like Puerto Rican self-determination, questions about the Indian gambling interests in California. I thought he did a couple of thing that were easy to call him on and I did. I think it’s part of a good debate. I think the job of someone like me is not to give a speech but to challenge somebody else’s speech point by point, hit the fact that a lot of it doesn’t add up. But I think a lot of things he said tonight were indefensible and I challenged him on them,” said Matthews. I also asked Matthews if a candidate’s performance on his show has a direct effect on the campaign. “ I think it’s no surprise that there may be some synchronicity between doing well on a program like ‘Hardball’ or other programs on the network or other networks and doing well in the numbers,” said Matthews. We’ll have to wait for the next poll to see if Sharpton’s “Hardball” performance has any resounding effect among Democratic voters.
CAPITALIZING ON THE DEBATE
It’s no secret how much Sharpton has to gain at national debates. He is not the candidate with the most money, endorsements, or unsullied past. But he is the candidate who makes the most out of a debate. The CBC debate on Sunday night in Detroit was no different. Sharpton was quick to get the crowd going with a one-line shot at President Bush: “We cannot continue to play Bush roulette — it used to be Russian roulette, now it’s Bush roulette.” Though Sharpton was one of the first candidates to speak at the debate, it took over 30 minutes for the panel to come back to him. “It doesn’t matter when they get to us. We are going to make are mark. I’m used to making the best out of bad situations,” said Sharpton. One thing we didn’t see from Sharpton was his role as self-appointed referee. In past debates, Sharpton has stepped in when he thought his fellow candidates were bickering too much among themselves. At one point, Sharpton even went on the offensive calling out Lieberman: “I went in 2001 and met with Arafat at the insistence of the Israeli foreign minister. Would anyone here meet with Arafat, in terms of trying to get peace in the Middle East? Let’s put the hard questions out, Senator Lieberman. Would you meet with the head of the Palestinian Authority?” I asked Sharpton if he was now adopting a new strategy at these debates — ditching the referee act and getting aggressive. “I think I responded to what Lieberman said. I think you got to be fair when you talk about terrorists, who are the terrorists, and I responded to what he said, and I responded on policy. What I’ve tried to say at the debates is let’s not get personal, and I think I did not get personal tonight. I dealt from a policy point of view. I will continue to do that throughout the campaign.” Sharpton’s participation at these debates was questioned in a New York Times article over the weekend. The Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote: “The heart of the problem, officials at many of the campaigns say, is that a debate of nine people hobbles candidates from standing out above the amusing wisecracks of stragglers in the polls like, say, the Rev. Al Sharpton.” I asked Sharpton about this article and the opinion that he should not participate in the debates. “How is nine people too many, you had six or seven when Bill Clinton ran. If people can’t win a debate, don’t act like it’s because too many people are up there. Maybe it’s because you have nothing to say. This is not an unusual amount of people. ... What I’ve seen is an unusual amount of people having not a lot of innovative things to say.” Most reports that I have read so far about Sunday’s debate barely mentioned Sharpton’s performance. But if crowd reaction (potential voters) or debate press room (people covering campaigns) praise are any way to judge a candidate’s performance, Sharpton was clearly at the top of his game. Dean embed Felix Schein even pointed out to me pro-Sharpton postings in a Dean Internet chat room during the debate. But is it possible that Sharpton’s debate performance cannot overcome the looming shadow of a campaign marked by a lack of funds, endorsements, and his own sullied past? Maybe. Nonetheless Sharpton’s most potent line came before the debate, in the confines of a Detroit preacher’s office. “I think if you can’t beat Al Sharpton in a debate you sure can’t beat George Bush in an election.”
ONE LINE AT A TIME
Sharpton has a gift for delivering the one-liner. Anyone watching Sunday’s debate can recognize how effective these one-liners are, and the difficulty other candidates have with them. But if you didn’t catch tonight’s debate, here are a few lines that got the crowds clapping:
“We cannot continue to play Bush roulette — it used to be Russian roulette, now it’s Bush roulette.”
“I intend to slap this donkey, the Democratic Party, until this donkey kicks George Bush out of the White House next November.”
“I said it earlier when we were talking about right to choose, one of the reasons I’m glad to be in this race is we’re going to have the battle between the Christian right and the right Christians.”
“Who defines terrorists? Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s friend. We were the ones that worked with Saddam Hussein. The United States worked with bin Laden.”
Now whether you agree or disagree with what Sharpton says, his passion and wit add an element to these debates. Some find it entertaining, others find it moving.
In Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton’s “Thunder in America: The Improbable Presidential Campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1984,” the authors write how Jackson, who Sharpton is most compared to, rehearsed certain one-liners before speeches.
So how exactly does Sharpton come up with his witty remarks? “A lot of what I say, I say on the spot because I’m responding on the spot. I don’t rehearse. … I don’t rehearse sermons. I don’t rehearse speeches. I speak from my heart. I speak reflectively, and I think that’s what people want is somebody authentic,” says Sharpton.