AL ON AMERICA
By Al Sharpton with Karen
283 pp. New York:
Publishing Company. $27.
AL SHARPTON is one of the more frustrating figures in
political life today. At a time when creativity and
originality seem to have been leached out of politics by a
succession of dreary elections -- you don't have to look much
beyond the New York gubernatorial contest this year to see
that -- Sharpton is a singular figure.
He is smart, articulate and even, at times, eloquent. He is
perceptive, funny and fearless. As anyone who has heard him
talk from a pulpit can testify, Sharpton is a man with a heart
and firm ideological beliefs. He may duck and weave when it
comes to some of the more unsettling episodes in his roguish
career, but rarely will Sharpton hold back when talking about
issues that send other politicians scurrying. He has a command
of politics that rivals some of the great New York party
bosses. No less significant, he has an understanding of the
way the press works that rivals more than a few city editors
in this town.
Sharpton is running for president these days, and one of
the persistent undercurrents of his entertaining new book,
''Al on America,'' written with Karen Hunter, a columnist for
The Daily News in New York, is that, given the clear abundance
of his talent, people don't take him seriously enough. What
has he done, he asks with indignation, that is any worse than
Bill Clinton? Or Gary Condit? Or Jesse Jackson? Or Richard
Nixon and Billy Graham, with their starkly anti-Semitic
exchanges in the Oval Office?
Well, in the minds of at least some people, quite a lot.
There is a reason that Sharpton remains such a polarizing
figure as he approaches his half-century mark, and it has to
do with more than the color of his skin. And what is often
frustrating about this book, and about Sharpton, is that he
does not seem quite to get that -- or, more accurately, he
chooses not to.
It is not until the final chapters -- after the stories
about Yasir and Ed and Rudy, past the recounting of a career
that has made him a more recognizable figure on the streets of
New York than Michael Bloomberg himself (I am not kidding
about that) -- that ''Al on America'' addresses some of the
entanglements that explain why it is that he remains on the
margins of American politics. And even then, as he recounts
his advocacy on behalf of Tawana Brawley, who claimed in 1987
that she had been abducted and raped by a gang of white men, a
claim that was later dismissed as a hoax by a special grand
jury, it is only to restate a familiar defense. Anyone
searching for repentance should look elsewhere.
''For some, that case defines my career and is the sole
reason why I should not be supported by anyone in this
country,'' Sharpton writes. ''For me, it defines my character,
because I refused to bend or bow -- no matter the pressures. I
took the word of a young girl, and if I had it to do over, I
would do it again.''
That may be a reason not to vote for Sharpton to be the
next president of the United States, but it is certainly not a
reason not to give this breeze of a book a read. Sharpton has
for nearly 20 years forced himself into an inside seat in New
York politics, and although he has many admirable qualities,
discretion is not one of them, as is readily apparent here.
There are not many black leaders these days who would write
a book suggesting that Bill Clinton had duped black Americans.
(''There are some who ever refer to him jokingly as the first
black president,'' Sharpton writes. ''Why? Because he could
blow a horn and get along with blacks?'') Or who would recount
a private conversation he says he had during the 2001 mayoral
race when he told Mark Green, a respected liberal Democrat
running for mayor, ''Not only are you a coward, but you are a
There are certainly not that many politicians who would
share a story about how he was tricked by Arafat, when --
again by Sharpton's account -- Arafat muscled Sharpton into an
embrace and a handshake that found its way onto the front page
of The New York Post.
For those who have tracked Sharpton's evolution over the
years, it is almost endearing to watch him struggle to adjust
to middle age and the middle class. There is Sharpton, the
father of teenage girls, lamenting the depravity of the kids
today. ''We've gone from James Brown, black and proud, to a
group called Niggas With Attitude,'' he writes, unhappily.
And there is Sharpton, embarking on his presidential
campaign and sounding like a presidential candidate, right
down to lists of policy proposals. We are not, thankfully,
talking ''Earth in the Balance'' here, but if you ever wanted
to find out what Sharpton thinks about globalization, you'll
find it in this book.
There are times when even Al Sharpton sounds like another
let's-appoint-a-commission candidate as he struggles to
finesse the kinds of issues that await him. ''I am not
antimilitary nor would I recommend that people not serve and
fight for our country. I'm just saying we need to take a
second look at how we're handling the military.''
Still, not unexpectedly, ''Al on America'' is nothing if
not provocative. Racism, he argues, is a greater threat to the
long-term stability of the United States than terrorism. The
Democratic Party acts as if black voters ''are their mistress
that they have to hide.'' The push to moderation by Democratic
leaders is the road to defeat, Sharpton argues, a point of
view that seems awfully prescient at this writing. He goes
right up to the line in arguing that American policies abroad,
to some extent, produced the attack on the World Trade Center
-- ''America is beginning to reap what it has sown,'' he
suggests -- though is appropriately careful to make clear that
he is not condoning what took place.
So how does one view this candidacy, or even this book?
Sharpton argues that he remains radioactive because he has
ripped ''the veil off Northern established liberal racism.''
But is it unfair of his critics to hold Sharpton to account
for some of his more destructive behavior over the years?
Sharpton's intelligence, verve, ideology and strong base of
political support suggest that the 2004 campaign for president
would benefit from his voice and presence. Still, one can't
help wishing that Reverend Al, as he likes to call himself,
had used these pages to cut back at last the weeds that have
been holding him down for so long.
Adam Nagourney is the national political correspondent
of The Times.
Published: 12 - 01 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section
7 , Column 1 , Page 29