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  Welcome, carlhouse

December 1, 2002, Sunday


Say It Loud

By Adam Nagourney

By Al Sharpton with Karen Hunter.
283 pp. New York:
Dafina Books/Kensington 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 liar.''

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

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