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Jewish World Review May 24, 2001 / 2 Sivan, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Consumer Reports

Sharpton's challenge
to Jackson -- COMEDIAN Jay Leno spoke for many when heard that the Rev. Al Sharpton may run for president in 2004: "Well, finally," Leno quipped, "a Democrat who can restore some dignity to the office!"

Well, not quite. Monica Lewinsky will win the Miss America Pageant before the colorfully controversial Sharpton wins the Oval Office. But Sharpton is just popular enough to mobilize a sizeable number of Democratic primary votes, especially among African Americans.

That alone would make his musings newsworthy, even if the Rev. Jesse Jackson's stature as the nation's most prominent black leader did not appear to be in jeopardy, which it is. In the wake of Jackson's acknowledgement that he fathered an illegitimate child, Jackson's having a hard time getting his own message out amid speculation as to who might replace him in the public spotlight.

Sharpton does not want to rush that along. I know because he told me so in a telephone interview-and if you can't believe an ambitious guy when he tells you he lacks ambition, who can you believe?

After telling me he had no desire to "help Rev. Jackson go down," Sharpton proceeded to portray Jackson, his long-time friend and mentor, as over the hill and himself as representative of a new generation of black leadership.

"I don't think Rev. Jackson is finished, by any means," Sharpton said, "but I certainly think he has politically passed his peak."


He and Jackson are 14 years apart, Sharpton points out, the same as Jackson and his mentor, Martin Luther King. The more he talked, the more he sounded like the eager student nipping at Jackson's heel like Bette Davis' backstabbing understudy in "All About Eve."

Sharpton described Jackson as having moved inside the corporate and political party establishment, while outsiders such as himself are ready to lead the truly disenfranchised.

"Rev. Jackson's theme in his presidential campaigns was, 'Our time has come.' What are we saying now? That our time has gone?"

Responding to those who say Sharpton's trying to grease Jackson's slide, he responded that Jackson is slipping already. "I'm going to cite your column where you talked about how Rev. Jackson already was fading anyway."

(Good move, Rev. Al. The surest way to this columnist's heart is to show that you read my stuff.)

Indeed, as I wrote shortly after the story of Jackson's out-of-wedlock child broke, Jackson's stature actually has been slipping and his agenda has been somewhat adrift ever since his last presidential run in 1988.

Still, if anyone is more widely disliked among moderates than Jackson, it is Sharpton. He'll probably be branded forever for claiming without evidence that Steven Pagones, a young white prosecutor, participated in the rape of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager whose story fell apart. Even after black businessmen paid the $65,000 defamation judgment that Pagones won from Sharpton in 1998, Sharpton refuses to apologize to him.

Sharpton became more of an outreach politician after he was stabbed in 1991 by a drunken white man during a march in the Bensonhurst section of New York City. He boasts of winning a fourth of the Democratic votes in 1994 in his second unsuccessful run for the Senate and the 32 percent of the citywide vote he won in the 1997 New York City mayoral primary.

"Look back," Sharpton said. "My image is no worse than Rev. Jackson's was in 1980," four years before Jackson's first presidential run.

When I reached Jackson, he responded to Sharpton's generational challenge with a positive spin: "It seems to me that the good news is that ceiling has been removed on our dreams."

By that, Jackson was referring to how his own presidential campaigns opened doors for other minorities, including Sharpton, to consider running.

Jackson still considers Sharpton to be a "long-time friend" and "student," he said. Jackson then refused to be "pulled through a keyhole," by those who want to cast black leaders as either speaking with one voice or in competition with each other.

Fine. Nevertheless, the struggle by Jackson and Sharpton to seize the media spotlight shows how dated both of their leadership styles have become.

This is not the 1960s anymore. African Americans now occupy leadership positions in corporations, government, universities and other institutions.

But, as you watch Sharpton and Jackson struggle for the big political spotlight, never forget that the real issue is power, especially theirs.

It is too early to call this a new era for black politics, but it's a great time for late-night comedians.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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