By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 22, 2000
c.2000 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ The Republican Party is waging a campaign to make the Rev. Al Sharpton, the black activist who’s been in the middle of most every racial melodrama in New York since the 1980s, into a central figure in the 2000 elections.
“We’re going to continuously and tirelessly expose Al Sharpton for what he is _ a racist anti-Semite with blood on his hands _ and we are going to continuously ask the question why Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are begging for this man’s support. It’s a pact with the devil,” said Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson has dubbed Sharpton the Democrats’ David Duke, while Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., has introduced a House resolution to condemn Sharpton and urge public officials to repudiate him. “I guess on the left, if somebody makes anti-Semitic remarks in New York, they’re called a Democratic leader; if they make it in Louisiana, they’re called a Klan member,” said Scarborough. “It’s bizarre.”
In introducing his resolution, Scarborough, like Sharpton a master of the irresistible soundbite, rhapsodized that “Al Gore’s Democratic Party is the party of Al Sharpton, Maria Hsia and free-spending Buddhist monks.”
The campaign to “Sharptonize” the Democrats is emanating from the RNC, Capitol Hill and sympathetic voices within the punditocracy. “Every day I find out something new and I’m shocked,” said Paulitz, who, at 24 and barely a year out of Ohio State University, mans what amounts to the Sharpton desk at the RNC.
It all promises a crescendo of attacks on the outsized activist, causing some observers to wonder whether Sharpton may emerge as the Willie Horton of the 2000 campaign _ that is, a fearsome black figure who can be used to scare white voters away from the Democrats.
“It’s an attempt to do a Willie Horton on the Democrats,” said Columbia University political scientist J. Phillip Thompson.
But Thompson believes that if the Democrats effectively respond that the Republicans are engaged in a “smear,” the net effect may be “to give African-Americans a reason to turn out for Al Gore.”
Black voters will be especially insulted by the Republican effort to equate Sharpton and David Duke, a former neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader who, despite repudiation from the national party, continues to hold a Republican Party post in Louisiana, Thompson said. “That may strike a deep nerve,” he said.
On Wednesday Sharpton began serving a 10-day jail sentence in Atlantic County, N.J., for leading protests last year agaist racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police. Sharpton was accompanied to the jail by Martin Luther King III, and said that the Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume plan to visit him while he’s in jail.
Tactically, the GOP focus on Sharpton is widely seen as a reply to continuing Democratic portrayals of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who will face Gore in the fall, as insensitive on questions of race and religion because of his appearance at Bob Jones University in launching his South Carolina primary campaign.
“Any time the vice president or the Democrats open their mouths in terms of trying to portray the Republicans as somehow being intolerant or extreme, this underscores and highlights their hypocrisy,” said Matt Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Scarborough’s resolution follows hot on the heels of a Democratic resolution condemning Bob Jones University for its discriminatory practices (until the recent controversy, the school banned interracial dating; now it is permitted with a note from the parents) and official statements describing the Catholic and Mormon churches as cults and the pope as a “possessed demon.”
“It’s pretty lame,” U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, the moderate Queens, N.Y., Democrat who introduced the Bob Jones resolution, said of Scarborough’s legislative rejoinder.
Crowley said there is a difference between condemning an institution’s practices and condemning the words or actions of a single individual. And Crowley said he and his constituents, among the most racially and ethnically diverse in the nation, are not particularly scared of Sharpton or inclined to be influenced by the efforts of a Florida congressman to instill such fear. Scarborough represents a district on the Florida panhandle that is known as the “Redneck Riviera.”
The Democrats are also building on Sen. John McCain’s attack on Bush as a political captive of the “agents of intolerance” embodied by Christian right leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. McCain, vying with Bush for the GOP nomination, likened Robertson and Falwell to Sharpton and Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan, whom he described as their intolerant counterparts of the left.
But, as GOP operative-cum-pundit Mary Matalin declared on “Meet the Press”: “It’s so much easier to make a moral case for religious conservatives than it is for racist murdering thugs like Al Sharpton in the (Democratic) base.”
The special emphasis on Sharpton’s credentials as an anti-Semite seems designed to present Democrats with a Hobson’s choice pitting two core constituencies _ blacks and Jews _ against each other. If Vice President Gore, his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, her party’s presumptive nominee for the Senate in New York, were to repudiate Sharpton, they might lose black votes. But if they seek and gain Sharpton’s support, Republicans hope, it will cost them Jewish votes.
But it’s a risky strategy. Some Republican rhetoric is so heated, and the GOP’s command of the complexities of Sharpton’s career so hazy and even sometimes wrong, that the party could end up coming off as the racial provocateur, driving up black turnout while turning off other voters.
That’s the view of Sharpton himself.
“This stuff can’t do anything but backfire,” Sharpton said in an interview. “They look like fools. It makes people think they are shrill, and if they will lie about this, what else are they lying about.” As for Matalin’s charge that he is a “murdering thug,” Sharpton said, “I’ll see her in court.”
While Sharpton’s past is rich with words and deeds that would have crushed the career of a less resilient leader, the current moment finds him at the peak of his climb toward mainstream respectability. In the last decade, Sharpton has carried the black vote in three losing Democratic primary runs _ twice for the U.S. Senate and once for mayor.
Sharpton has also been the key figure representing victims of police violence in New York and organizing public protests that have drawn prominent opponents of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to his side.
First was the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant brutalized by police, and then Amadou Diallo, the African immigrant killed in a hail of police gunfire when he reached for his wallet. Most recently, on March 16, Patrick Dorismond, another unarmed black man, was killed by a police officer.
The front page of Sunday’s New York Post spoke volumes about Sharpton’s place in New York’s racial pageant. Under the headline “HELP ME!” was a photo of the victim’s anguished mother as she “collapse(d) into the arms of Al Sharpton.”
In fact, there is probably no black political leader in the country right now, with the possible exception of Jesse Jackson, who has a broader reach among the range of black activists and political leaders. And much of the Jewish political leadership in New York has reached an accommodation with Sharpton.
The RNC’s Paulitz protested that if Sharpton “is not an anti-Semite, there’s nobody in history who has ever been anti-Semitic. He is the prototype of building the perfect anti-Semite.”
But Myrna Shinbaum, a spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League, which takes such talk very seriously, does not agree. “We don’t consider Sharpton an anti-Semite,” she said. “He brings with him some baggage, but he is a very smart politician who has moved away from extremism and is a major player in the Democratic Party in New York.”
New York’s two top Jewish elected officials _ Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, both Democrats _ are on good terms with Sharpton.
So is Edward I. Koch, who in 1988, then mayor and backing Gore’s losing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that Jews “would have to be crazy” to vote for Jesse Jackson, who four years earlier had called New York City “Hymietown.” This presidential cycle, Koch backed Bill Bradley over Gore for president and escorted him to an appearance at the Harlem headquarters of Sharpton’s National Action Network. “I was the beard. I made it kosher,” Koch explained. “His support is acceptable.”
Because Sharpton’s power lies in the strength of his support in the black community, there appears to be little personal downside in being a GOP target.
“What I think they’ve done is rally support I would not have gotten,” Sharpton said, adding that no Democrats had distanced themselves from him in the wake of the escalating Republican attacks.
The predicament for the Bush campaign is that any attack on Sharpton that comes to be seen as hyperbolic or unfair may invite unflattering comparisons to how supporters of his father’s 1988 candidacy focused attention on Willie Horton to damage the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Horton was a black prisoner who raped a white woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, and while the facts of the Republican attack were correct and very effective, their Willie Horton campaign has since come to be viewed as racially incendiary.
Scarborough rejects any insinuation that he is a party to making Al Sharpton into Willie Horton redux. “It would be absolutely disgraceful if Democrats or journalists who are sympathetic to the left try to turn this around and act as an apologist for a guy who has been blatantly anti-Semitic,” he said.
While one of the most vocal members of the brash Republican class of 1994, Scarborough is no cookie-cutter conservative. He reveres Robert F. Kennedy, supported Pensacola’s black community in getting a stretch of road named for Martin Luther King and, his attack on “free-spending Buddhist monks” notwithstanding, is a stalwart champion of a free Tibet. “Some of my best friends are Buddhist monks,” he said.
Not everyone on the Republican side is squeamish about the Horton-Sharpton comparison.
In the April 3 National Review, Senior Editor Jeffrey Hart, a former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter, advises the Bush campaign to “Willie Hortonize Al Sharpton. Shots of Gore and Sharpton with Freddy’s Fashion Mart burning in the background. Buddhist nuns and Tawana will be fun to kick around.” Sharpton, in fact, graced the cover of the previous issue of National Review (as he did the Winter 2000 issue of Rising Tide, the official RNC magazine), beside the headline, “SHAME: The Democrats and Al Sharpton, Hatemonger.”
“Tawana” is Tawana Brawley, the young black woman who claimed to have been abducted and raped by a group of white men in upstate New York, and whom Sharpton represented with flights of rhetorical outrage that sharply polarized New Yorkers by race. A grand jury eventually concluded that Brawley’s story was invented, and Sharpton is now appealing a $65,000 judgment assessed against him by a jury that concluded he had defamed a local prosecutor whom Brawley falsely implicated in crimes that never occurred.
Freddy’s Fashion Mart refers to the Harlem store that in 1995 was the scene of picketing by people associated with Sharpton’s organization. On one of his weekly radio shows, Sharpton referred to Freddy’s owner, who is Jewish, as a “white interloper.” Three months later, one of the protesters stormed the store, ordering “all blacks out” before shooting up those left inside and setting fire to the place. He killed eight people including himself.
Sharpton later apologized for referring to the store owner’s race in his “white interloper” comment, but he regards the notion that he is responsible for those deaths _ and similar charges being made against him in other circumstances _ as ridiculous.
Fred Siegel, an urban historian at Cooper Union who has written about Sharpton, said that in some cases the Republicans have gotten the exact facts wrong, but the music right.
Siegel said Sharpton is best understood not as a hater but as “an impresario of hate,” who surrounds himself with haters, stirs them up and then expects public credit when he tamps them down. “It’s a good game,” one enabled by a pliant and Sharpton-friendly New York media, Siegel said.
Still, Siegel believes that Sharpton’s unpopularity with white voters is what has kept Giuliani’s numbers constant against Hillary Clinton, despite the negative publicity over police shootings.
But it is not at all clear that George W. Bush has the aptitude or inclination for this sort of racial politics.
Earlier this year, in an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” Bush answered a question about the Nation of Islam in a way that suggested he was not picking up on the distinction between the controversial organization led by Farrakhan and the broader religion of Islam.
And, when asked March 6 on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” whether he would visit with Sharpton while in New York, Bush offered a rather friendly demurral, noting, “He’s not going to be for me.”
Said Bush: “I’m not going to call on Al Sharpton because I _ you know _ he and I don’t agree philosophically for starters.”