The eternal Sharpton

Jonah Goldberg

8/4/2004 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

It was hardly shocking that Al Sharpton was permitted to speak at the Democratic Convention. But a scandal needn't be a surprise to still be a scandal. What is stunning, however, is how his speech has been received. Already, Business Week has hailed him as "the toast of the Democratic Establishment" and the usual nattering-chattering shows are treating him like an elder statesmen of the party. One would call it a rehabilitation, except for the fact he was never habilitated in the first place.

Sharpton's re-creation is all the more miraculous - and disgusting - because it came without an apology for the Tawana Brawley affair. Nor any serious penance for the murderous "protests" he helped inspire that resulted in four people shot and eight burned to death - all because they represented what Sharpton called "white interlopers" in Harlem (the majority of victims were actually neither white nor black).

Democrats contend this is all "ancient history" - even as the Democrats tout their nominee's war record from three decades ago. And complain though we might, Sharpton has indeed become one of the most important voices in black America. But at the end of the day his voice hasn't changed much.

Sharpton allegedly tore up his original, Kerry-approved speech and rewrote it in response to President Bush's recent address to the Urban League. In those remarks, Bush had rhetorically asked whether blacks should reconsider their lopsided support for the Democratic Party. After all, the Bush White has certainly done more for black America than the press or the official "leadership" of black America are willing to acknowledge. His faith-based initiative, his massively increased spending on education and labor, his appointment of the highest-ranking African-American cabinet officials ever - the NAACP & Co. would have wildly applauded these measures had they been implemented by a Democrat.

So Bush asked a few questions: "Does the Democrat Party take African-American voters for granted?" "Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? . How is it possible to gain political leverage if the party is never forced to compete?" And: "Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat Party truly served the African-American community?"

Sharpton intended his speech to be an answer, but it turned out not to be an honest one. After a stem-winder of a peroration on the long struggle by blacks for civil rights and the usual mythologizing about the Florida recount, Sharpton stared straight into the camera and declared with a boom: "This [black] vote can't be bargained away. This vote can't be given away. Mr. President, in all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale."

The audience exploded at what was arguably the best sound bite of the convention.

So here's my problem: With all due respect, this is a crock. If Sharpton means to say that Republicans are trying to bribe blacks into giving up their right to vote - as the text seemingly suggests - then he's still the deceitful demagogue he was in the 1980s. There's no evidence Republicans tried, or even thought of, anything of the sort.

And, if Sharpton means to say that Democratic votes can't be bought through the usual pandering, graft and pork common to Democratic (and, alas, Republican) politicking, then he's either a fool or a liar. I don't just mean the infamous "walking around money" given to black preachers in the inner cities, but also the jobs, set-asides and quotas the Democratic Party reserves for blacks and other minorities. It is simply a fact that black votes are "bought" with a quid pro quo of Democratic support for issues blacks support. The same goes for Hispanics, Jews, feminists, and so forth.

And, to a certain extent this is as it should be. Politicians tend to reward their supporters and vice versa.

What is so disturbing about Sharpton's "Our vote is not for sale!" exclamation is the suggestion that it doesn't matter what Republicans do when it comes to the black vote. Bush's Urban League speech was not an attempt to tempt blacks into a Faustian bargain whereby blacks would sell their franchise. It was an attempt to show black voters that they aren't getting as much value for their political currency as they should. In Sharpton's formulation, President Bush could adopt the entire agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus - including "reparations," the ultimate political bribery - and blacks would stick with the Democrats.

This bigotry is twofold. First, Sharpton believes that Republicans are irredeemable enemies and, second, that blacks are incapable of seeing their interests as distinct from the Democrats. In effect, both Republicans and Democrats, according to Sharpton, are "born that way." What's worse than Sharpton's bigotry, though, is his bullying of blacks who might disagree with him. He's still the street thug he always was, just with better speechwriters - not that the Democratic Establishment cares if his speeches are well-written.