Reverend Al

Posted: May 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON, D.C. -- I have met one of the prodigies of the age. I actually shook his hand. He is an amiable, suave, butterball of a man with slicked back hair that curls up at the back of his neck. He has a blues-singer's voice that would charm the birds out of the trees. The voice would be particularly effective if the birds carried cash with them or had other transferable assets. The prodigy wears a glittering gold Rolex watch on his left wrist and on his right wrist just gold. He wears a three-piece suit, not badly tailored, and highly polished shoes. He is a man of the cloth, though he wears no collar. He is the Rev. Al Sharpton, and he has the smile of the eternal boy, the eternal bad boy.

 I encountered the Reverend at Manhattan's City Hall restaurant, a fine eatery where Manhattan pols gather to eat and drink just a block or so from the real City Hall where Manhattan pols gather to acquire the wherewithal to eat and drink. It is obvious that the Rev is a happy man. He jokes easily and smiles almost all the time, save for when his boyish eyes widen as he discusses the good things that are happening to him.

 One of those good things is the new TV contract that he has just gotten from one of the cable networks to do a Reverend Al talk show. My guess is the show will be a bust. Yet whether it succeeds is not the point with the network, of that I am sure. The network executives merely want to show how innovative they are and what friends of civil rights.

 Surely they are not giving the Rev a show to demonstrate what friends they are of religion. In fact, the Rev betrays no hint of the holy orders he must have at one time been anointed with. My friend who introduced me to the prodigy reminded me that the Rev has been a preacher since boyhood, but I saw no manifestation of the blood of the lamb around the Rev at lunch. He was consuming what appeared to be black bean soup with a dab of cream atop it when I departed his table to allow him to dine and laugh in the company of his companion, another corpulent and merry pol.

 Both men, I am told, have poor blacks as their especial constituents. They are the heirs to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The Rev. Jackson seems to have lost some of his fire since a mistress was found heavy with child and with funds from one of the Rev. Jackson's tax-deductible foundations. Both the Rev. Jackson and the Rev. Sharpton are, of course, hucksters. Their obvious prosperity and the esteem they hold in the media tell us something about the idealism of our time -- it pays.

 Dr. King did not gain prosperity and esteem for his work in civil rights. Much to the contrary, he gained nights in jail and assassination. History remembers him well, but in his day he suffered for his beliefs. Today, if the Rev. Sharpton suffers it is only an occasional missed dessert and the probable doom of his television show. (Facts are facts, and the fact is there exists no large audience eager to hear him bloviate on things he knows very little about -- namely, public matters. I heard him bloviate during the Democratic presidential debates. He is a vacuum.) That idealism pays today suggests why it attracts hucksters. Yet that is not wholly a bad thing.

 To be a civil rights idealist is no longer a dangerous pursuit. In fact, the cause of civil rights is no longer a dangerous cause. That is because the vast majority of Americans favor civil rights for all Americans. There was a day when black people were barred from the Bill of Rights. To qualify to vote in some segregated areas of the South blacks had to take literacy tests that asked such questions as "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" It is a funny question, but with a cruel consequence. Those days are past.

 So now we have civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Sharpton. As he left the restaurant, he joshed to us about how he was engaged in cooling off his erstwhile opponent, John Francois Kerry, from making yet another campaign blunder. The Rev has a whiff of the magisterial to him. He puts on a grand show.

 So there is no more lynching in the South or much prejudice up North. Al prospers. If only something could be done to help the poor blacks who are condemned to inner city schools. On that, Al has not a clue.