Jewish World Review August 23, 2001 / 4 Elul, 5761
He's already lost a race for the Senate in 1994. He lost another race in 1997 for mayor of New York City. Big Al does not think small. He's ready to lose big time.
That's OK. Losing presidential races can be an excellent career move. It can make you famous or, in a case like his, more famous. You can make a political point and set yourself up nicely for other goodies like book contracts, lucrative lecture fees and who knows?
Maybe you can end up with your own radio talk show. If you play your cards right, people who hardly knew you before suddenly want to know what you think.
It is not quite true that every child in America can grow up to be president. But every child can grow up to run for president, and sometimes it seems as though everyone is trying. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who Sharpton has been trying to nudge aside as the nation's premier media-anointed black leader, showed how to lose a presidential campaign in grand style in 1984 and 1988. The names of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes and Ralph Nader also spring to mind in the political also-ran sweepstakes.
With role models like that, it is not surprising that Sharpton would be in the National Press Club earlier this week to announce a committee to explore a possible bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Best-selling author Cornel West, a Harvard professor of African-American studies and philosophy who backed Bill Bradley in 2000, will head the committee.
Every presidential campaign in recent decades has its gadfly candidates. Each has influenced the national debate. Sharpton is working on getting his bid in early, if he runs, and I expect he will. In the world of black activism, he must, as they say in marketing, "build" his "brand."
I also expect him to lose. Political winners in this rapidly diversifying country are good at forming coalitions across racial, ethnic and economic lines. For all of his "outreach" talk, Sharpton's a divider, not a uniter.
Sure, he's taken on some worthy causes over the years, and he is trying in his own colorful way to reach out beyond his black base. His popularity among Puerto Ricans, an important New York City constituency, grew when his protests of U.S. military bomb tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques led to his serving a 90-day sentence in federal prison.
But he's running for president of the United States, not just of Puerto Rico. For that, he'll need a lot of votes he is not going to get. He won't get them because of two words more than any other: Tawana Brawley.
In 1987, Sharpton seized the national spotlight by accusing a white prosecutor and other law enforcement officers of raping and brutalizing Brawley, a black teen-ager in upstate New York. A grand jury later determined that Brawley made up the incident, and Sharpton, along with two associates, was ordered to pay $345,000 in a defamation suit. Sharpton's share was paid by a group of black businessmen.
Yet, Sharpton seems unable to bring himself to apologize or even express regret for the Brawley episode or anything else he has done in his career of activism, not even in his news conference, which I attended. That's his right. It is also the right of others to be outraged by him, which many are. Polls show him to be as loathed by whites as he is appreciated or, at least tolerated, by blacks.
In one poll that was taken last fall by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank specializing in black policy issues, 41 percent of the public viewed him unfavorably and only 10 percent viewed him favorably. He fared a bit better among blacks - 37 percent "favorable" to 29 percent "unfavorable."
But it really must have pained Sharpton deeply to hear that almost half of the nation - 44 percent - said they never heard of him, despite his tireless self-promotion. Even 25 percent of African-Americans said they didn't know who he was, the poll found. He's got to build his brand. What better way than to run for president?
"Who will lead America's blacks," reads a headline on the cover of The Economist, a leading British newsweekly. The article inside concludes that, "The publicity-driven tactics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton look increasingly tired and irrelevant. Black America needs a new generation of leaders."
We have a new generation of leaders already, whether the media happen to notice or not. In fact, several of them occupy highest offices of the media. Black America has leaders in every sector of American life, sectors in which we would have been denied entry-level positions three or four decades ago.
Racial progress has reduced our need as African-Americans for racial-grievance leaders like Jackson and Sharpton, but America has not progressed enough to put them out of business. As long as racial minorities feel insecure about their rights and opportunities, racial grievance leaders will have a constituency.
More important than the question of who will lead America's blacks is, who will lead America? You don't have to be a genius to figure out that it is not going to be Reverend Al.
At most, he's a sideshow, amusing when he is not being inflammatory, which is not often. If he runs, he wins by losing. The rest of us only
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