CONASON: The Rowdy Reverend Al Sharpton

Next to my desk hangs a color photograph taken by a Brooklyn photographer named Bert Smith. I keep it nearby because it protects me from the wiles of the Rev. Al Sharpton.The moment captured in this picture took place on Oct. 18, 1986, when the Reverend, dressed up for the occasion in a suit and natty gray vest, endorsed the re-election of Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who is wearing a pinstriped suit and has his eyes closed, as if he cannot wait to be somewhere else. Mr. Sharpton is behind a microphone, of course, and is pointing toward a questioner with his left hand. He holds the mike stand with his left hand, flashing a diamond pinkie ring.A few minutes after their press conference, the preacher took the Senator to see a building for which Mr. D'Amato agreed to obtain a $500,000 rehabilitation grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which the Senator effectively controlled in those days. When the grant became a sideshow in the enormous H.U.D. scandal a few years later, the Senator claimed that he was never aware of Mr. Sharpton's role in the rehab project, and both men insisted that the project had nothing to do with the endorsement. Such insults to normal intelligence are in the repertoire of all politicians, of course. The Sharpton-D'Amato arrangement was a mutually convenient deal. The Senator had been accused in a New Republic profile of referring to black constituents as "animals," and needed Mr. Sharpton's street credibility to reinforce his denial. The Reverend wanted a building renovated, and didn't mind lending his name to a right-wing Republican in an era when the Reagan Administration was rolling back civil rights, cutting education and slashing most urban programs.It was perhaps a minor episode in the Sharpton saga, whose chapters include his contacts with mafiosi, his years as an F.B.I. informant, his sponsorship by the New Alliance Party cult, his continuing relationship with the Nation of Islam, and his demagogic behavior in the Tawana Brawley case and the boycott of a Jewish-owned store on 125th Street. There have been better moments, too, after his stabbing in Bensonhurst and during the 1992 Senate race. He's behaved with considerable dignity of late, as he always does when he is looking for a few more votes and a little more respect.But introspection and humility are not his style. In the Sept. 15 runoff debate, Mr. Sharpton upbraided Ruth Messinger for failing to endorse Jesse Jackson for President in 1988, implying that she had thus betrayed the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. That is the wing Mr. Sharpton now purports to represent, in New York City at least, so it seems fair to recall what he did in that 1986 Senate race, when a real progressive named Mark Green took on a reactionary incumbent against great odds. There is no reason to believe that Mr. Sharpton's character is any less flawed now than it was then. He was and still is the Trickster: glib, unprincipled, clever and always entertaining.Behind the comical facade, however, there is something ineffably sad about Mr. Sharpton, who has squandered a considerable personality and intelligence on a career as entertainer and provocateur. He has a talent for language that is rare in politics and an ability to engage young people that is healthy for democracy. He is the chosen spokesman of those who otherwise feel excluded from the electoral process. And if he hadn't so consistently defined himself as a clown, we would be obliged to listen when he quits joking.Unfortunately, Mr. Sharpton's failure to mature into a significant political figure is tragic not only for him, but for a constituency whose lives are anything but funny. The effect of his presence is not to focus attention on the health, housing, drug, education and employment problems that plague the neighborhoods where he is popular, but to distract from them. He provides an easy excuse for whites to dismiss black suffering as rhetorical showmanship rather than a pressing concern for all of civil society.That may be why, aside from his undeniable wit, Mr. Sharpton is so attractive to the cameras. He poses no actual threat to anyone except progressive Democrats like Ruth Messinger, who must court him or risk alienating his bloc, and he provides a balm of humor that soothes any remnant of white guilt. Even if he is eliminated from contention in the mayoral race by a recount or a runoff, the rowdy Reverend isn't going away anytime soon. He will be around to haunt the Democratic Party, demanding tribute as a broker of black votes. Like his mentor Jesse Jackson, he will never run for an office he can win, because that would mean accepting responsibility for the kind of boring legislative or executive work that must be done outside the limelight. Instead, he will continue to divide poor and middle-class blacks from the great majority of whites who ought to share their interest in a fairer economy and better public services.That $500,000 grant was probably the best investment Al D'Amato ever made.

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