The dumbing-down of the presidential candidates

Rich Lowry

12/1/2003 12:00:00 AM - Rich Lowry

"If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house."

Those were the immortal words of the Rev. Al Sharpton during the Crown Heights crisis in New York City in 1991. A car driven by a Hasidic Jew had run over a black child in the Brooklyn neighborhood, prompting black-Jewish tensions that eventually spilled over into anti-Semitic riots. Sharpton's contribution to civic peace was statements like the above, together with such classic anti-Jewish smears as: "Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights."

Oh, the statesmanship. This is the man who stands with eight other presidential candidates every two weeks or so to opine to a national audience about the future of the republic. With Sharpton, the dumbing-down of presidential candidates is complete. In 1992, Pat Buchanan ran for president after having a cable TV show. In 2000, Alan Keyes did Buchanan one better -- he ran for president to get a cable TV show (it appeared briefly on MSNBC). Sharpton is running on the Keyes model, with his scheduled "Saturday Night Live" guest-hosting gig this weekend showing some results.

Fringe candidates can have their place. Ralph Nader added something to the 2000 election. But Sharpton has no memorable policy proposals, no distinctive ideological position, nothing but himself and his resume.

He wants to be remembered as the guy with the funny lines rather than a racial provocateur who smeared an innocent man during the Tawana Brawley hoax and built his New York notoriety on race hatred. "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business," Sharpton said in a 1995 Harlem controversy over a Jewish store owner who had a conflict with a black rival neighbor. A protester in that case eventually shot his way through the store and burned the place down, killing eight people.

The other Sharpton priority is supplanting Jesse Jackson. Sharpton threw his sharpest elbow of the campaign after it was reported that Jesse Jackson's son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., planned to endorse Howard Dean. Sharpton promptly, and ridiculously, denounced Dean for his "anti-black agenda." Why does Sharpton hate Jackson? The same reason Ford hates Chrysler. He's the competition.

Sharpton and Jackson are dueling over who will be the nation's best-paid race hustler, a lucrative occupation. For example: According to The Wall Street Journal, the owners of the Word Network, which is devoted to running black church services, pay Sharpton and Jackson roughly $10,000 per protest to demonstrate at the headquarters of cable operators that don't yet carry Word. A Sharpton-led protest in March 2002 prompted a St. Louis operator to begin carrying the cable network.

The cynicism of the Sharpton campaign is an open book. Typically, presidential candidates stay in cheap accommodations. Sharpton's campaign, in contrast, is an excuse to live high. According to the New York Post, Sharpton has stayed at the nation's swankest hotels, including a visit at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles, which soaked up 5 percent of the cash Sharpton had raised in the third quarter fund-raising period. When appearing at black churches, Sharpton collects a "love offering" -- that goes directly into his own pocket.

Sharpton counts on other candidates and the moderators at the debates being too timid to challenge him on his checkered past and questionable practices, so he can pass himself as respectable. In an exception, Tom Brokaw recently asked Sharpton if he would apologize for his role in the Brawley case. Sharpton had a defamation judgment against him in the case, but he stood by his smear and responded with a fusillade of obfuscation that eventually wore Brokaw down.

Sharpton will no doubt win his own private presidential race. He will emerge from this campaign as the nation's foremost "civil rights leader." Owned by Sharpton, however, that title is not worth having.