Michael Steele visits Al Sharpton at the NAN’s National Convention

Oh, but it was shaping up to be a classic. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele speaks before Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. The Beltway meets Harlem. Two of the most powerful black men in American politics share a stage for an afternoon, and it goes down uptown, really uptown, at NAN’s headquarters on the corner of 145th Street … and Malcolm X Boulevard.

It was not to be. NAN’s 2010 National Convention is in fact being held in Midtown at the Manhattan Sheraton and Towers, an edifice seemingly designed with neutrality in mind. Plain brass, blond wood, hushed acoustics. Yes, the New York East room, where Steele would speak, is a vision in blue — blue-striped walls, blue floral-print carpets, blue chairs, blue bunting on the dais — but not that garish Democratic Party blue. A darker, calming, nonpartisan shade. Quiet. Serious. At 3:30, those blue seats are filled with quiet, serious NAN Member Delegates. Sharpton and Steele walk in quietly; the applause builds politely as the audience gradually becomes aware of their presence. Sharpton’s introduction is warm: he and Steele, despite differences, are brothers in generating controversy. Steele’s opening remarks warmly return the handshake. And then he’s off on his speech.

What strikes first is not what’s being said, but how it is said. Steele is comfortable, genuinely comfortable, up there. He sounds different. He sounds … like himself? The stiffness and combativeness that render his TV interviews awkward is gone. So is that doubly awkward black inflection that so often creeps in. He’s speaking like a friend among friends, easy and eloquent. And judging by the response, he is among friends, or least fellows: The audience is clearly comfortable, too. Steele’s job, he says, is to turn the elephant. “Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever had to turn an elephant, but the end you have to start with is not necessarily the best place to start.” This gets a good laugh. A bit later: “Certainly one of the lessons I’ve learned and the challenges that I’ve had in this job is that you can’t please everyone, but you can certainly make them all mad at you at the same time.” This gets a great laugh. Later still, a story. When Steele became lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2003, he was told that his office had belonged to Thomas Jefferson in the early days of the republic. “And I would sit there from time to time and I would think to myself, Thomas Jefferson must be saying to himself, ‘How did a brother wind up in my office?” Roars to the roof. “Well, Sally Hemings knows how I wound up in that office!” Through the roof!

But also: Huh?

And another question: how’s that going to play in Richmond and points south?

Probably about as well as the next 15 minutes of the speech. The community assembled here, Steele says, has been enjoying the “I have a dream” dream for two generations now. Civil rights, equality on paper, the familiar story. But, of course, dreams do not reflect reality. When you were growing up, he asks the audience, did the American Dream feel like part of you, like it was your birthright? For many it did, he says. For many more it did not, “and as you and I know, that dream has often been delayed and sometimes denied — and until our children are born thinking the American dream is their birthright, it will remain that way.” Moreover, he adds, it will remain that way until the children have access to fair and affordable housing, access to credit and capital, and voting machines that work. (“You didn’t think I knew about that, huh?” Knowing laughter. )

By god, it could be Reverend Al up there at this point — and then Steele commits outright GOP treason and quotes, at length, from a litany of depressing statistics about the racial achievement gap — first delivered, he reveals at the end, on June 11, 1963, by John F. Kennedy himself. “Not much has changed,” he concludes, dropping the words slow and hard as an axe-head, “In forty. Seven. Years.”  Don’t even ask about his follow-up statement on pervasive Justice Department bias. Earlier, a woman had been taken from the room by EMT’s, evidently having fainted. Any Tea Partiers in the room were surely getting the vapors themselves.