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

Tim Cahill Contributor
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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.

The turn, when it comes — and of course it comes — comes slowly, shiplike; awkwardly, as ships tend to turn. Steele’s relating the tale of Sharpton and Gingrich’s unlikely whistlestop campaign for school reform. A Magical Mystery Tour, he calls it.

Well, Steele suggests, maybe it’s not such a crazy pairing, Al and Newt. Because school reform isn’t a Republican issue, isn’t a Democratic issue, it’s an issue that all parents of all stripes must confront, because education is the key to the American dream. He says some harsh things about each party’s approach. Then he moves on to a metaphor about how throwing kids into the world after public school is like throwing them into the Big Game without coaching them first — so charter schools are the answer. Then — hard to starboard, now — a statement about how nothing moves us like our inalienable rights, such as freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Which are given to us not by the Constitution, but by God. So the government has no Constitutional right to take them away from us.

The message veers off course a little here, because the next minute it’s the government’s fault that those God-given rights aren’t available to some Americans. But Steele is quickly back on track: public education isn’t really the endgame after all. No, “we need to create a policy environment with opportunities for ownership and prosperity and developing legacy wealth.” Like the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts, and those Kennedys again, and, uh, Oprah. Because “legacy-wealth creation is the one asset that can transform the future of our families.” Which means small government and entrepreneurship and no bailouts and basically the whole Republican platform, delivered like clockwork, as Steele has delivered it a hundred times before.

It had started out so well. Now the audience is going, going, almost gone. Seats are shifting. Audience murmuring is becoming audience whispering. “What are we, the Tea Baggers?” says one listener, in considerably more than a whisper. The mind wanders back to the beginning of the speech, to try to figure out how we got here. Wait — can it be right that in an entire speech before the National Action Network, Steele has not once said the word “black”? That he has said “African-American” perhaps half a dozen times? That though he has alluded to Martin Luther King several times now, he has only named him once, and then in passing? That he has alluded to but never named Malcolm X? It can, and it is.

Steele heads back to the beginning, too, or tries to. Back, lo! those 47 years, to the moments when the movement for equality began. But attributing Republican values to Thurgood Marshall isn’t the best way to convince an audience of Civil Rights movement veterans of Steele’s cross-party sincerity. And saying a generation of young would-be entrepreneurs is counting on those veterans to keep “the Dream” alive is just a crude misuse of the great speech — one that some of them witnessed in person.

The chairman wraps it up with another appeal to parental feelings. That young generation is counting on “us [who, exactly?] to bend down and to help them not only to survive but to succeed, as generations before bent down for us.” Because “we [who?] are the post-Civil Rights generation of Americans [of African descent?] who have moved from taking a seat at the lunch counter to taking ownership of the diner.” Glory!

Yes, It is time to take action — and that action “is not going to be determined by a bureaucrat from Washington, D.C.!” Because “this is your bend-down moment!” Because here, now, 2010, not 1963, not 2012 — now is the time to “cry Freedom!” in the halls of Washington.

There is polite applause at the end, no Q-and-A time, and a rapid mass exodus, Steele leading the way. Did anything he said surprise any of the NAN Delegates? “No,” the answer comes from one. And no, and no, and no again from three more. “I felt he was just trying to convert us to his party there at the end,” the last elaborates.

Michael Steele wants us, them, the community — whoever they or we are — to come together on some common ground. But he can only bend down so far.