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Al Sharpton, President of the United States?

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How will the Rev. Al Sharpton do as a Democratic presidential primary candidate against all those big-time, well-backed white guys? They won't know what hit 'em.

On the evidence of his past campaigns, Sharpton will run rhetorical circles around his "betters," bringing out the populist in many of us and beguiling even some who distrust him. But to what ends? None but his own, although he'll sound like a silver-tongued social democrat heading up a trans-racial crusade in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Watch him at it in a 1992 campaign, when he dropped his theater-impresario's cape and took up the mantle of a Christian civic statesman, pirouetting from disgrace in the Tawana Brawley case into the healer of an old feud-all with a gentle joke.

"I'm afraid I have to disagree with my friend the Rev. Sharpton," New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams had demurred as Sharpton held forth on some election issue in a Democratic Senate primary debate that included Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman. "I'm afraid I have to disagree that we're friends," quipped Sharpton with a twinkle, bringing down the house. Everyone knew that Abrams had prosecuted Sharpton (unsuccessfully) for tax evasion after leading an investigation that had found his account of the Tawana Brawley case a hoax. Now, the lightning felicity in Sharpton's retort made Abrams seem needlessly ingratiating, grubbing for votes.

It was almost enough to make you forget that four years earlier, Sharpton had characterized Abrams's offer to talk with Brawley as "like asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler.'' Even some of Sharpton's sympathizers broke with him then, but not for long.

Two years later, just before announcing his challenge to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in that year's New York Democratic 1994 Senate primary, Sharpton opened for Louis Farrakhan before a crowd 25,000. Introduced as "the people's preacher" by Farrakhan's New York lieutenant, Conrad Muhammad, he roared, "We're here today to… stand together. Don't ask who don't like it; we love it! We will stand together, not in some private midnight meeting, but in the daylight we will join hands together!"

Two months later, Sharpton invoked Farrakhan while announcing his candidacy against Moynihan, and Muhammad announced that the Nation of Islam would get more involved in elections through Sharpton's campaign. Moynihan "rose to fame talking about the black family, while I'm a broken family product," Sharpton charged.

It was almost enough to make you forget that while Sharpton's early childhood had been comfortable and he'd used his gift for "talking" about blackness to become a tribune of the oppressed, Moynihan, also from a poor, broken home, had made his youthful living shining other people's shoes. Sharpton the campaigner has often helped Republicans more than Democrats. "One night in South Africa, I came home from Nelson Mandela's inauguration, turned on the TV, and saw Moynihan in the funeral procession for Richard Nixon," he thundered. "He was helping to bury Richard Nixon, while I was helping to bury apartheid!"

It was almost enough to make you forget that in 1986 Sharpton had endorsed outright the "Nixon" of New York politics, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, and, after losing the 1992 nomination to Abrams, had counseled black voters to sit on their hands, helping D'Amato win yet again.

In the 1994 gubernatorial race between incumbent Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, Sharpton told a Harlem rally, "I'm not gonna be a battered wife for the Democratic Party." The first black leader whom the victorious Pataki received in the Governor's mansion three months later was Al Sharpton.

Now Sharpton is lampooning presidential candidate John Edwards's claim to have fought for the "regular guy," challenging Edwards to "name one regular guy he fought for who didn't pay him." Edwards might answer that his courtroom victories have curbed corporate greed, helping "regular guys" who never paid him--and that Sharpton has helped a lot of Republican "guys" who never paid him.

Sharpton's populist, racial theater is dangerous because it is so compelling. He pushes decent whites' racial guilt buttons, setting off a repetition syndrome of trying to get right with black folk by submitting to endless re-stagings of whites' conviction of racial sin, repentance, and, through Sharpton's joshing endearments, absolution.

Some of his public psychodramas, over racial murders in Brooklyn and Queens, were well-justified. But not the Brawley rape that didn't happen, the black-church arson epidemic that didn't happen, the rise in New York police brutality that didn't happen, and the "re-segregation" of California's universities by Prop 209 that didn't happen. It's almost as if Sharpton's white admirers need to keep the coordinates of 1963 racism firmly in place, the better to sustain an old moral clarity instead of facing what's wrong with some color-coded remedies.

Sharpton dines out on that need for false clarity. His populist and salvific rhetoric aside, his eye's on the prize of displacing Jesse Jackson as the black tribune. "Jesse's like an airplane with no airport to land in," Sharpton told me. But now it's he who wants to be first on every runway.

This isn't about justice. It's about racial power brokerage. Sharpton may tickle guilt-ridden liberals and a very few leftists who still think blacks the "cats' paws" of revolution, and I have always believed that somewhere in his big, convoluted heart, he does dream of leading us beyond race to a brighter tomorrow. The sadness behind the fun in his compulsive re-stagings of "Fight the Power" and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s heroic reckonings with America is that he never leaves us anything but a civic equivalent of the dry heaves.