Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Always Landing on His Feet

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Always Landing on His Feet

Article excerpt

AL SHARPTON is one of the most astute political strategists I've ever met. He may also be one of the most unlikable - and, yet, still anointed with a status in politics and the media that is frankly unfathomable.

Simply put: Why does anyone take him seriously?

For all those who hate him and ask that question each time his face pops up on a TV screen, here is why the man survives.

The news last week that Sharpton was once an FBI informant should not surprise anyone who has followed his oddball career from street agitator to presidential candidate and now to MSNBC, where he hosts his own show that advertises itself as promoting serious discussions about public policy. More than three decades ago, when Sharpton was little more than a sideman for singer James Brown and a preacher with no regular pulpit, he collected information for the FBI about mobsters.

"Reverend Rat," proclaimed a New York tabloid when a website, "The Smoking Gun," published previously secret documents about Sharpton's undercover exploits.

Sharpton responded in the expected way. He called a press conference. Then he dropped a perfect quote to feed the tabloid frenzy.

"I was not, and am not, a rat because I was not with the rats," said Sharpton. "I'm a cat."

A cat with multiple political lives.

Classic confrontation

I first met Sharpton on the streets of Teaneck more than two decades ago in one of the classic confrontations that he seemed to savor. A white cop had shot and killed a black teenager. Of course, Sharpton had to be there.

He still wore a shiny track suit. Still curled his hair. And he marched.

It needs to be said here that people in Teaneck and elsewhere - blacks and whites, alike - raised legitimate questions about the shooting. But Sharpton's presence pushed rationality and reason to the sideline.

He marched to protest the cops. The cops marched to protest him. He marched again - and kept marching. It was as if a cloud of craziness had enveloped the town. And somehow the questions that needed to be addressed - better training for cops in gun incidents and the increasing number of kids carrying guns were two of the most pressing -- all seemed to never gain a foothold in a reasoned community discussion.

I spent weeks with Sharpton, trying to figure him out. I met him for breakfast at his home in Englewood, talked with him on the phone, even followed him through New York. What I saw was a man who knew exactly what he was doing.

He wanted to stir the political and social pot - to agitate, as he put it. And he did. He was a genius at what he did. He was rational. He plotted strategy like a military general. He knew how to measure power and how to needle the powerful just enough to make them sit down with him.

But he also had another side - what I'll call the "Soapbox Al" part of his personality.

It was this soapbox side that led him to stick to the story that Tawana Brawley had been raped long after it had been disproved. …

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