You can bet that one of the first calls Harry Reid made after his “Negro dialect” comments surfaced was to Al Sharpton. Who knows what sort of deal the two worked out, but Sharpton quickly came to Reid’s aid, dismissing the majority leader’s gaffe as a minor blemish on an otherwise pristine record of support for civil rights.
In the days since, Sharpton has used his considerable PR skills to Reid’s benefit on various talk shows. Sharpton’s quotes wound up in countless news stories.
To some extent, the strategy has worked: If Al Sharpton says you’re not a racist, then what’s the problem?
For one thing, Sharpton himself. Now, I take a back seat to no man in my affection for Al Sharpton as a person and a character study (evidence here: The league of extraordinary gentlemen). Sharpton is a smart guy. In some ways he’s a good guy. But a moral arbiter? Let’s not get carried away.
You could write a book about Sharpton’s brushes with the dark side, and indeed some have. The headlines are faded but still resonant to those who lived them: Tawana Brawley, Crowne Heights, Freddie’s Fashion Mart.
If you’re too young to remember the names, spend an hour on Google and treat yourself. But for serious scholars of Sharptonalia, two episodes in particular sum up Sharpton’s public career, and at the same time (in one of my least favorite television news cliches) Raise Powerful Questions about whether he ought to be wagging a finger at anyone else.
The first is the drug tape. A federal sting operation in the 1980s unexpectedly caught Sharpton, dressed in a cowboy hat with a cigar in his mouth, as he had an extended conversation with an FBI agent posing a cocaine kingpin.
“Every kilogram we bring in — $3,500 to you. How does that sound?” asks the ersatz dealer, as Sharpton nods on camera. “So if we bring in 10, you’ll make $35,000.”
“I hear you,” Sharpton responds.
Sharpton threatened legal action after HBO aired the tape, claiming there was a “second tape” that exonerated him. That tape has yet to surface.
The second episode concerns a deposition Sharpton gave about 10 years ago during one of his many legal entanglements. The New York Times ran a hilarious but underpublicized story about it at the time in their Metro section (here: Asking how Sharpton pays for those suits; case offers glimpses of his finances). The whole thing is well worth reading, but here’s the highlight:
In the middle of a tough exchange about Sharpton’s finances, the opposing counsel pressed Sharpton about what possessions he owned. Sharpton’s answer: In effect, none.
But what about all of those handsome suits you wear? asked the lawyer. Surely you own those. Correction, replied Sharpton. I have “access” to those suits.
The transcript does not record whether he smiled as he said it – though for what it’s worth, every time I see Sharpton on television lecturing America about who is or who is not morally fit for public office, I smile. Broadly.