Jewish World Review May 7, 2003/ 5 Iyar 5763

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Sharpton plays court jester … GOP laughs in private


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The New York Observer's Joe Conason is no dumbo, unlike any number of reporters and pundits who share his left-of-center political views. So it was striking how naive Conason's May 5 column about conservatives' embracing Al Sharpton's presidential candidacy was. Mind you, this painfully serious writer doesn't buy the Manhattan carnival barker's act at all, unlike timid Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, all of whom have kissed Sharpton's ring.

(Conason, by the way, would be an excellent liberal cable commentator. Fox's Roger Aisles would further bolster his stellar marketing resume if he dumped Alan Colmes as Sean Hannity's counterpart and replaced him with the Observer veteran. Colmes is overmatched by his co-host: Conason, a seasoned reporter, would blow Hannity away in certain debates, relying on facts, and not give an inch even when the popular conservative held the upper hand.)

Conason begins: "Al Sharpton will forever be his own biggest fan, blithely forgiving himself every trespass against truth and decency in pursuit of video face-time." He then catalogs fairly recent quotes from the National Review, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson that correctly ripped the "Rev" to shreds. No argument here: Sharpton is one of the most despicable celebrities posing as a politician in the United States today.

But of course Republicans are tickled that Sharpton has the potential to muck up the Democratic primary fight for the presidential nomination. Conason recounts Sharpton telling Jimmy Breslin: "The next time anybody wants to know about Tawana Brawley, I'm going to ask them, ŒDo you ask Teddy Kennedy about Chappaquiddick? Do you ask Hillary Clinton about her husband?'" Sharpton's a distraction for the serious contenders, and it'll be fascinating to see if John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean or John Edwards has the fortitude to publicly slap this charlatan down.

Typically, at the Democratic forum last Saturday night in South Carolina, which included all nine contenders, not one of Sharpton's rivals questioned his lack of credentials. In fact, the Rev seized an opportunity to take the high road­a first­when Sen. John Kerry and limo-lib teddy bear Howard Dean exchanged barbs. It was a continuation of a weeks-long feud, one that Kerry wouldn't engage in if Dean weren't virtually tied with him in early New Hampshire primary polls.

Last week, after Dean made a trademark ill-considered statement related to Iraq­saying, "We won't always have the strongest military"­Kerry's hired gun Chris Lehane marshaled an excited media to defend his boss. He said Dean's comment "raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as commander-in-chief." At the South Carolina gathering, Mean Dean amped up the battle, taking digs at both Lehane and Kerry's habit of mentioning his Vietnam war record 18 times a day. He said: "Everyone respects Senator Kerry's extraordinary, heroic Vietnam record, and I do as well. However, what I would have preferred­this is 30 years later­I would have preferred, if Senator Kerry had some concerns about my fitness to serve, that he speak to me directly about that rather than through his spokesman."

In other words, piss off, Mr. Aristocrat.

Kerry responded: "I really think that anybody who has measured the tests that I think I have performed over the last years on any number of fights in the United States Congress, as well as my service in Vietnam, that I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean." It gave Sharpton the opportunity to put on a diplomat's hat, as he scolded his fellow Democrats, saying, "We should not have the bottom line tonight be that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at one another."

That's how badly Kerry and Dean have stumbled less than a year before the nominee of their party will be chosen: Al Sharpton giving them lectures on civility.

Anyway, as Conason knows­or maybe has forgotten­it's all about politics. In 1992, Democrats were jubilant that attention-starved Pat Buchanan competed against George H. W. Bush in the early primaries, a nuisance that the former president completely bungled. When Buchanan was granted a prime-time speech at the Œ92 Republican convention, in which he spewed his familiar litany of xenophobia, homophobia, protectionism and practically every other position that was bound to alienate independent voters, it was clear Bill Clinton was going to win that November. Similarly, in the open primaries of 2000, where no party affiliation was required to vote, many Democrats cast their ballots for John McCain against George W. Bush, even though they intended to support Al Gore that fall.

As I mentioned above, concerned Democrats like Conason ought to view Sharpton's egomaniacal run as a blessing for the party. The Democratic nominee is going to win the vast majority of black votes in any case, and Sharpton isn't as popular as his handlers would have him believe. If, say, John Edwards, who needs something besides trial-lawyer cash to prop up his lightweight campaign, rebuked Sharpton for his racism and divisive politics, he'd be an instant frontrunner. Maybe Maxine Waters would throw a fit, but the media and most fair-minded Americans would applaud Edwards for simply telling the truth.

Edwards, of course, who ducks questions about the paucity of his foreign policy experience by reminding people that he was the first in his family to attend college, doesn't have the balls to challenge Sharpton. Nor does Kerry, the New England stiff who made a huge mistake by hiring former Al Gore attack-puppy Lehane and Robert Shrum, the wealthy Kennedy apologist who's stuck in 1970s rhetoric almost as badly as the Village Voice.

In Monday's New York Times, William Safire offered his assessment of the South Carolina debate: "So who won this Derby, besides [host George Stephanopoulos]? Lieberman and Gephardt finished in a dead heat, with Kerry closing and Edwards off the pace." Lieberman, despite his hawkish stands on Iraq and fighting terrorism, is not electable. He claims that his moral severity is more than a match for Bush, citing his rebuke of Bill Clinton's perjury during the Monica Lewinsky drama and taking on the entertainment industry for its sex and violence-drenched movies, music and video games.

However, Lieberman voted to acquit Clinton on impeachment charges and gladly accepted Hollywood campaign contributions in 2000.

The Democrats' best chance for victory against Bush is to nominate Gephardt. The former House minority leader might be boring and viewed as a Beltway insider, but he's performed magnificently so far in creating a unique niche among the nine candidates. Gephardt was an early supporter of toppling Saddam (a must in the 2004 election) and if the economy dips precipitously is the lone Democrat who can nail Bush on domestic issues.

Sure, his universal health care boondoggle is anathema to Republicans, but it's the one broad proposal advanced so far in the campaign. He's popular with unions, opposed Bush's tax cuts and won't back away from a fight. If the President's in trouble a year from now, Gephardt's complete lack of charisma won't lose him a single vote.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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