While Giuliani and Rangel have taken turns denouncing the reverse-racist crank, the quotably clever rev has uttered nary a peep. His unaccustomed silence suggests that for once Sharpton simply doesn't know what to say. Whether he eventually speaks up or not, however, his own fortunes are entwined with those of Khalid Muhammad?and in an improving economy, their joint political stock is going down. That may complicate his continuing effort to insert himself into the New York Senate race and the Democratic presidential campaign. Sharpton's problem isn't that he shares the illiterate "philosophy and ideology" espoused by the frothing führer of the New Black Panther Party; in truth, no one who knows the jovial reverend believes that he really hates anybody, although he used to do a plausible imitation of a bigot whenever the mood struck him. His own political perspective tends to be considerably more flexible and opportunistic.
Throughout his public career, though, Sharpton has always profited from the scary masquerades put on by people like Khalid Muhammad, and he has often hustled to the head of the march whenever malcontents and loudmouths mobilized themselves in his community. Among Sharpton's multiple personalities is the "reasonable militant," the guy who understands black resentment and who knows how to cool out the brothers and sisters before things get out of hand. Back in the Dinkins era, that was his backdoor entree to City Hall.
Nowadays, nobody needs Sharpton to mediate with the likes of Khalid and his uniformed goons, who are more of a nuisance than a menace. No one seriously regards the New Black Panthers as the vanguard of a violent uprising by ghetto youth gangs. Last year's "Million Youth March" was a bust in every sense, made newsworthy only by the police overreaction. This year, the Mayor and Muhammad still enjoy baiting each other, but everyone else is bored. It's just another show, and a rerun at that. The more noxious varieties of black nationalism just aren't big box office any more, not even on 125th St. or Bedford Ave. There are many reasons for that, economic as well as cultural, but one result is that the relevance of Sharpton has been declining steadily. He achieved his political zenith almost seven years ago when he provided comic relief from the pointless bickering of the other Democrats in the Senate primary of 1992. His reputation was damaged but somehow not entirely destroyed by his appalling dishonesty in the Tawana Brawley fraud. Making the transition to electoral politics has nevertheless proved difficult for him, despite his natural aptitude for public debate, his personal warmth, his considerable intelligence and his permanent celebrity status.
Unfortunately, Sharpton lacks any real interest in public policy, a quality that the most superficial of pols must possess for success. And his concerns, while perfectly worthy, are too narrow even for an ethnic politician. He thrives in the sensational environment created by events like the Diallo shooting, and arguably plays a useful role by maintaining pressure for reform. But when the crisis recedes, he disappears with it, because he has so little to say about the more mundane topics of housing, transportation, education and employment that are so crucial to the broader black constituency.
Privately, the city's regular black politicians consider him unreliable and perhaps untrustworthy. While some of them may envy his talents and his media savvy, they prefer to be led by a crossover artist like State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. So instead of continuing to pursue elected office, Sharpton has tried instead to position himself as a broker of black votes, using the implicit threat of his own candidacy to command the attention of white candidates. This maneuver?a blatant imitation of his mentor Jesse Jackson?served him well during the 1997 mayoral election, if only because Democratic nominee Ruth Messinger had barely defeated him in the primary and was too weak to risk alienating any of Sharpton's supporters. The price she paid for courting him may well be too high for any less desperate Democrat to contemplate.
Sharpton's latest attempt to insert himself into next year's campaign was the forum he hosted at his Harlem headquarters for Bill Bradley, whose laudable impulse to encourage interracial dialogue was used rather cynically on that occasion. The reverend may or may not end up supporting the Democratic challenger in next year's primary; their liaison was meant to distinguish Sharpton from the black Democratic establishment that is almost uniformly behind Al Gore. The more immediate purpose of Sharpton's temporary alliance with Bradley was to signal the White House that the reverend desires more attention than he has been getting. Several times in recent weeks he has mentioned that he feels dissed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned a deaf ear in his direction during her "listening tours."
If Sharpton expected the First Lady to hurry over and kiss his butt after the Bradley event, his hopes clearly were in vain. She isn't going to bother appeasing him anytime in the near future, either. For one thing, Mrs. Clinton probably knows that she cannot expect the soft treatment Bradley has been getting from the media, and therefore would be roasted mercilessly for appearing anywhere under Sharpton's auspices. She doesn't much care for the reverend's brand of demagoguery and certainly doesn't need his help in reaching black voters.
In fact, Sharpton and his ilk would be nothing but a liability to Clinton in a contest where the marginal swing votes will be found among Jews, Catholics and white suburbanites generally. To be denounced by him can only help her where she needs help the most, without injuring her much in her reliable urban base.
For Sharpton, the Clintons' popularity in the African-American community is sufficiently strong and durable to pose a serious dilemma. He can eventually endorse the First Lady and blend into the background, grinding his teeth because she refuses to single him out for special treatment. Or he can withhold his support and watch her assemble overwhelming support from other black politicians and voters anyway.
There was a time when Sharpton might have considered tacit support for a Republican when dealing with a recalcitrant Democrat. In 1986, he made a rather tawdry deal to back the reelection of Al D'Amato. Next year, with Giuliani as Mrs. Clinton's opponent, the reverend will have nowhere else to go.
Joe Conason is the editor-at-large for The New York Observer.