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Rev. Al Sharpton has torn a ragged hole in his own reputation, calling into question his capabilities as a leader. Morose and bathed in self-pity, the presidential candidate in late October descended into what resembled a slow motion, weeklong emotional breakdown, triggered weeks before by the resignation of campaign manager Frank Watkins, the long-time aide and confidant of the Jesse Jacksons, Senior and Junior.
By November 5, when Sharpton finally flailed his way to the bottom of a breathtakingly self-destructive spiral, he had managed to read himself out of the Black Political Consensus, at least temporarily, having demeaned the pantheon of Black congressional and institutional leadership as a mere “club.” Sharpton shed a great deal of personal dignity along the way, and squandered hard earned trust that will not easily be reclaimed. Overwhelmed by the pain of perceived betrayal by the Jacksons, Sharpton struck back at Black leadership as a whole. Amazingly, he staged his dreadful tantrum at the precise moment when African Americans were demonstrating near-unanimous opposition to George Bush’s latest attempt to pack the federal courts.
We do Rev. Sharpton a kindness in saying that he must have been out of his mind.
Frank Watkins was the personification of the tango-like dance that for a time partnered Sharpton, Jackson Sr. and his namesake, the Congressman. Watkins, a white man, served Rev. Jackson throughout the Seventies and Eighties, as communications director and general strategist. No one besides Jackson himself was more responsible for the strengths and weaknesses of the Rainbow/Push Coalition leader’s 1984 and ’88 presidential bids, history-bending campaigns that transformed raw Black electoral numbers into an awesome force with a face and an agenda.
When 30 year-old Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. won a Chicago congressional seat in 1995, Frank Watkins was there. The two collaborated on an extraordinary book, “A More Perfect Union: Advancing New American Rights,” which called for constitutional amendments to guarantee citizens’ rights to: full employment; high quality health care; decent and affordable housing; a public education of equal high quality; equality of the sexes under the law; a clean, safe and sustainable environment; fair and progressive taxation; and a constitutionally explicit right to vote. The book is a powerful exposition of a comprehensive social democratic agenda, and a tour de force of the history of race in American politics.
Well before the 2000 election, Rev. Sharpton spoke often of making his own run for president – but the elephant sitting in the collective African American living room was, of course, Rev. Jackson. It was plain that a Sharpton bid was inconceivable without Jackson’s tacit assent, yet in the first year of the Bush presidency the two men avoided appearing on the same venues. A modus vivendi was reached, in which Frank Watkins became Sharpton’s campaign manager, and Sharpton adopted three Jackson-Watkins constitutional rights planks to his campaign platform – on voting, health care, and education. Kevin Gray, a Jackson operative from the Eighties campaigns, signed on as coordinator of Sharpton’s critical South Carolina effort.
The severed link
On September 30, Frank Watkins and Kevin Gray resigned. "I have nothing but the highest regard for Frank Watkins and will always refer to him as Uncle Frank and look forward to his sage advice over the course of this campaign," said Sharpton. Watkins said the breakup was due to “personal reasons,” and that he’d continue to serve as an unpaid advisor to the campaign – and planned to vote for Sharpton. But even a rookie observer of Black politics should have known that the Reverend’s vision of the campaign was about to unravel.
The die was cast when, during the last week in October, Rep. Jackson joined Howard Dean on a trip to South Carolina. On Monday, October 27, Jackson introduced Dean to a Southside Chicago church crowd as the candidate with "the best chance” of winning the presidency. "I've seen him stand up for health care," Jackson said. "I've seen him stand up for students. I've seen him stand up for ordinary Americans. I'm asking you to stand up for Howard Dean."
The next day, in Washington, Rep. Jackson’s office announced that the Congressman would soon make a formal endorsement. Howard Dean "doesn't put his finger in the air to test the wind before he takes a stand," said the prepared statement, read by a Jackson spokesman – Frank Watkins.
Sharpton went ballistic, firing off a blistering statement, by far his harshest criticism of a fellow Democrat of the entire campaign: "Howard Dean's opposition to affirmative action, his current support for the death penalty and historic support of the NRA's [National Rifle Association's] agenda amounts to an anti-black agenda that will not sell in communities of color in this country."
Words on paper do not convey Sharpton’s physical demeanor. He seemed struck, wounded, desperate for space to breath and bellow, as if the “Jacksons” had cornered him or – worse – cut him adrift. "Any so-called African American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record is mortgaging the future of our struggle for civil rights and social justice." Sharpton had never used such language against any of his fellow performers on the Democratic Presidential road show. Clearly, this was not about Dean at all.
The Chicago Congressman’s retort came just as quickly:
Rep. Jackson’s response only served to further inflame the preacher/activist from Brooklyn. Gone was the jocularity, the fine-tuned wit that snapped and smartly slapped but did not savage the other Democratic candidate. Dean was by now little more than a short white guy standing in for Sharpton’s perceived nemesis, the Jacksons. A fuming, furious Sharpton took his demons to Boston for the Rock The Vote debate, November 4.The public spectacle
Prompted by a young Black man’s question, Sharpton lit into the former Vermont Governor for his “I want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" remark, a recent paraphrase of Dean’s statement that had brought down the house at a meeting of decidedly liberal Democrats, in Washington, back in February. All year long, Sharpton had had no quarrel with the line, but that was before the Jackson “betrayal.” Democratic frontrunner Dean had become Sharpton’s straw man.
It was a nonsensical exchange, made more ridiculous when North Carolina Senator John Edwards danced onto center stage, bouncing like he’d found money.
Sharpton’s opportunistic ally in the Dean beat-down sounded exactly like a 1950s-era Deep South politician, ready to run the “outside agitators” out of town or into a shallow grave. Who knows what the audience was really clapping about? When the same people applaud Sharpton and Edwards, something very wrong is going on. Sharpton kicked Dean around as a surrogate Jesse Jackson – and for no other reason, since it is Edwards, not Dean, who stands the best chance of beating Sharpton in the crucial South Carolina primary.
February statement, later clumsily repeated although with
no discernible shift in meaning, was: "White folks in the
South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in
ought to be voting with us and not them, because their
kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need
too." This straightforward commentary on white racism – the
false consciousness that leads whites to act against their
own interests – earned Dean a standing ovation from
a progressive audience nine months ago. Sharpton strung
together a riff full
of Martin Luther Kings, Maynard Jacksons, and even Jesse
Jacksons that cynically turned Dean’s words inside
out with such disorienting effect, the performance had
a southern Senator
doing a buck-and-wing.
Dean's February statement, later clumsily repeated although with no discernible shift in meaning, was: "White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too." This straightforward commentary on white racism – the false consciousness that leads whites to act against their own interests – earned Dean a standing ovation from a progressive audience nine months ago. Sharpton strung together a riff full of Martin Luther Kings, Maynard Jacksons, and even Jesse Jacksons that cynically turned Dean’s words inside out with such disorienting effect, the performance had a southern Senator doing a buck-and-wing.
Corporate commentators described the spectacle as a standard, get-the-frontrunner pile-on, and for Edwards and other white candidates, that certainly was the case. (Carol Moseley-Braun appeared genuinely repelled by the mauling.) Sharpton, however, had gone from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in the space of a week. He was coming unglued, laid low by Jesse Jacksonophobia.
Fouling the nest
The diagnosis was confirmed the very next day, November 5. As leaders of a wide and deep spectrum of Black America prepared to urge Senate Democrats to filibuster Janice Rogers Brown’s nomination to the federal bench, Sharpton was busy spouting the Republican line to the Sinclair chain of TV stations.
“I don't agree with her politics,” said Sharpton of Janice Brown. “I don't agree with some of her background. But she should get an up-or-down vote.” Sharpton opposed the filibuster, a last-ditch tactic designed to deny a legislative majority – in this case, Republicans – an up-or-down vote in the full Senate. Then Sharpton spoke words that could have been scripted for Armstrong Williams or some other Black GOP hireling."We've got to stop this monolith in black America because it impedes the freedom of expression for all of us. I don't think she should be opposed because she doesn't come from some assumed club."
The “club” Sharpton derides encompasses the entire Congressional Black Caucus, gloriously unified in their demand for a filibuster. As Sharpton vented his misplaced rage, other “club” members were preparing for a pro-filibuster press conference coordinated by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR):
LCCR Executive Director Wade Henderson was dumbfounded when informed of Sharpton’s madness by the Washington Times. "I don't believe it,” he exclaimed – and who could? “That can't be true," he said, still doubting the rightwing paper’s account. "It would be shockingly surprising."
Sharpton reversed his position a day later, but the damage had been done – to himself, by himself. His November 6 statement, as reported by BlackAmericaToday.com, reads:
That’s what an Al Sharpton in his right mind would have said and done on November 5. Instead, imagining Junior and Senior Jesse Jacksons opposing him at every turn, Sharpton lashed out at Black political leadership in general, casting himself out of a “club” that includes almost everyone he seeks to influence. If he were intent on political suicide, he had succeeded in finding the perfect time and issue to end it all.
Back on April 24, in “What the Black Presidential Candidate Must Do,” we wrote: “We believe that Al Sharpton is up to the task, if he maintains a clear vision and personal discipline.” The “task” was to cause “the largest possible number of African Americans [to] coalesce behind one candidate in order to prove that there still remains a formidable Black bloc vote. If you are the unabashedly Black candidate,” we said, addressing Sharpton directly, “that should be you.”
Sharpton’s job was to be available for the voters in the primaries, thus allowing them to make a political statement that would be heard clearly throughout the Democratic Party. His primary task is not to win the nomination or trigger some flood of endorsements. Sharpton is an intelligent man, who began his campaign journey well aware of the possibilities and limitations of his candidacy. In cautioning Sharpton that “Black voters are your only hope of wielding clout as a leader of an effective Party bloc,” we purposely did not give weight to endorsements from Black elected officials, who must play the game on an already existing field. Sharpton’s mission was to alter that field by the weight of his Black tallies on primary days, especially the February 3 ballot in South Carolina, where Blacks should comprise a majority of Democratic voters.
We hope Sharpton can still do well in South Carolina, although no one can predict the immediate or long term fallout of his bizarre behavior during his week of deep, dysfunctional funk, when he lost all semblance of “clear vision and personal discipline.”
Meanwhile, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have endorsed Howard Dean. is pleased that both these large (numbers one and four, respectively) and heavily Black unions are backing the former Governor, the only top-tier candidate who credibly opposed the Iraq war. We were equally impressed with his remarks on pickup trucks and Confederate flags, which we understood as a rare statement by a white politician on the idiocy of delusional white men. How ironic that it took a temporarily delusional Black man to mangle Dean’s words beyond recognition.