The scariest thing about Al Sharpton is that he actually seems to think he can be president. When people say he can't be president, Sharpton is fond of saying, "That's what they said about Jesse Jackson." Of course, the logical rejoinder is that Jesse Jackson was never elected president either.
But logic and Al Sharpton are rarely in the same room.
Indeed, that's why the race-baiting black hustler from Brooklyn is in the 95 percent white Hawkeye state this week trying to convince corn growers and hog farmers that he'd make a good commander-in-chief.
When The Des Moines Register asked him, "Why spend all this time and energy running" for the White House when "you don't really have a shot?" Sharpton shot back: "You just wait. You're in for a surprise."
This is, of course, loopy. Sharpton's chances are so poor that he adds a new corollary to David Broder's rule of presidential politics. The elder statesman of The Washington Post has written that anyone willing to do what it takes to run for the presidency is automatically unfit for the highest office in the land.
Well, Sharpton, with his bottomless ambition and shameless publicity-seeking, certainly has what it takes to run. But here's the real irony: If Sharpton thinks he has a shot at becoming president, this alone would reflect a lack of judgment, intellect and, quite frankly, sanity so profound his Cabinet would be obliged to certify him as mentally incompetent under the 25th Amendment and remove him from office.
Regardless, Sharpton has other reasons to run for president. He wants to replace Jesse Jackson as the "leader of black America," as numerous Sharpton-watchers have phrased it.
Jackson is certainly on the ropes. The preacher who's railed against sexual harassment had to confess to fathering a child with a staffer (no wonder he thought the Lewinsky scandal was no big deal). He also had to reveal how his vast empire was built by shaking down corporations. For example, Jackson took money from Ken Lay before he started holding prayer vigils for Enron's employees.
But just because Jackson's star is falling doesn't mean Sharpton's is rising. In fact, Jackson might be turning off the lights and locking the doors behind him at the office of Leader of Black America. And that's good news.
For most of American history, there was a real need for a Fredrick Douglass or Booker T. Washington or W.E.B. Du Bois to speak for a population largely locked out of the democratic process. But Martin Luther King Jr. was probably the last leader who spoke with clarity for most of black America. Jackson's claim to have been the anointed successor of King (a historically contentious claim) bore mixed results.
But even if Jackson were willing to step aside for Sharpton, it's doubtful the "divine right" of King, as it were, could be laid upon Sharpton. First of all, polls shows that many blacks are lukewarm toward Sharpton. Just as important, most whites either don't know who Sharpton is or generally despise him.
This isn't racism so much as a legitimate judgment about a man who staged one of the most notorious racial hoaxes in American history. King was effective not just because blacks supported him, but also because he had moral authority with whites.
Sharpton, who in 1992 called his fellow Democratic contenders for New York's Senate seat "recylcled white trash," has no such moral authority.
Sharpton has repeatedly lavished praise on the most violent black racists in America. Sharpton encouraged a protest against a white, Jewish business in Harlem, which eventually concluded with a man running into the store, killing eight people and burning the store down. At first, Sharpton denied egging on the protests that led to the murders. When confronted with tapes of him fanning racial tensions, Sharpton defended himself by saying, "What's wrong with denouncing white interlopers?"
This is not a black man even guilty white liberals will feel bad about ignoring.
And, again, that's the good news. There are nearly 9,000 black elected officials in the United States. The former Jim Crow states of Mississippi and Alabama, combined, have more black politicians than all of America had in 1970, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Black men now run Fannie Mae and American Express and are about to take over Merrill Lynch and AOL Time Warner. The secretary of state and national security adviser are black. Black professors are ensconced at Ivy League schools. And, oh yeah, there are no objectively racist laws on the books the way there were a generation ago.
In short, black America doesn't need a central figure to plead its case in the public realm. And the last thing it needs is Al Sharpton.