Sharp Tongues for Sharpton

Sharp Tongues for Sharpton

Why did the pundits declare the Reverend's rousing DNC address to be "off-message"?


With all due respect to rising star Barack Obama, Al Sharpton gave the most moving speech of the Democratic National Convention, a clarion call to reject President Bush's plea for an African-American political realignment toward the Republican Party. Sharpton reminded Americans that African-Americans waited decades for the Republicans to fulfill their promise of forty acres and a mule before deciding to ride the donkey "as far as it would take us," and recalled the martyrdom of countless innocent people in the struggle for black inclusion into the Democratic Party. As anyone watching the convention could see, the delegates were up on their feet, applauding the former candidate at least twenty-six times during his twenty-minute oration.

One might think that a performance like that would spark a substantive engagement among the professional journalists employed to provide probing analysis of the convention. After all, many had complained about how tightly scripted the convention was, how disengaged the delegates seemed to be, how bland and stiff the Democratic Party had become. Moreover, anyone with a passing knowledge of Democratic politics, particularly those positioned to provide strategic commentary, knew that the Democrats could not possibly win without a heavy black turnout.

Yet while the crowd was still on its feet, the voice of the late Ray Charles still soaring in the background about an America that he never actually saw but fervently believed in, the media shifted from reporting the convention to policing the speaker. As a television viewer, I was stunned by the instantaneous transformation of professional journalists into self-appointed–and woefully misguided–deputies for the Kerry campaign. Judy Woodruff, for example, declared on CNN that Al Sharpton had "hijacked this convention." To use such an inflammatory term–one that conjures up not only notions of menace and danger but, in this post-9/11 world, the specter of terror and tragedy–in response to a speech that had powerfully invoked the bitter history of struggle that links African-Americans to the Democratic Party was entirely inappropriate, to say the least.

Similarly troubling was CNN reporter Candy Crowley's interview with Sharpton after the speech. Crowley caught the Reverend still basking in the afterglow of his speech and told him, "I wanted to talk to you a little bit and tell you that you were a little off-message." Note that Crowley isn't a Kerry campaign operative, or even an official of the Democratic Party–she obviously forgot that her job was to cover the campaign, not act as a roving rhetorical security detail to issue tickets for reckless speaking.

Others declared Sharpton's speech to be "Bush-bashing." According to CNN's Jeff Greenfield, Sharpton's suggestion that Clarence Thomas would not have gone to law school had Bush's appointees been on the Supreme Court in 1954 was "the most incendiary line of the convention."

Still others in the press speculated that the Kerry people were in high panic backstage because Sharpton had spoken longer than his allotted six minutes, thus jeopardizing John Edwards's opportunity to appeal to the American public. To hear the reporters tell it, Sharpton came to the party and literally shot up the place, possibly ruining the Democrats' chances of retaking the White House right then and there.

Yet it was the media themselves who gave the over-the-top performance, one that was largely about race and perhaps just as "off-message" as they proclaimed Sharpton's speech to be. First, despite their alarmist response, there was no scheduling crisis. There was plenty of time built in to the schedule with entertainment to insure that Edwards would go on at 10 p.m. This wasn't new or unknown to anyone watching the convention–they actually had to find filler to make sure that the prime-time speakers didn't begin before they were supposed to. Donna Brazile told Blitzer as much when he pressed her to comment on Sharpton's performance, but her calm affirmation that the schedule was intact was ignored.

Moreover, reporters like Crowley and Blitzer declared that Sharpton's comments were off-script without consulting or quoting anyone in the Kerry campaign saying so. This wasn't reporting, this was a substantive construction of his remarks built on a questionable assumption–that Sharpton's decision to respond to Bush's implication that black people were unwise in their loyalty to the Democratic Party was not a message the Kerry people wanted. But everyone knows that black Americans are a core Democratic Party constituency, and support for Kerry in the black community is soft. Any Democratic strategist in his or her right mind would worry that Bush's comments might resonate with just enough black voters to steal the election–this time legitimately.

There was plenty of newsworthy discourse that journalists with cooler heads might have explored in the aftermath of Sharpton's speech. Candy Crowley, rather than upbraiding Sharpton, might have taken up the more obvious and interesting inquiry as to whether the party really did take blacks for granted–a compelling question that Sharpton himself has raised on many occasions. Greenfield, rather than deeming Sharpton's comments about the Bush judiciary "incendiary," might have taken the opportunity to add yet another issue to the laundry list of important constituency-based interests that failed to receive any attention at the convention podium–namely the right wing colonization of the federal courts.

In fact, Sharpton was right about Clarence Thomas. The current Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, himself penned a memo urging the Court to uphold segregation and repudiate the Brown v. Board of Education challenge. Brown remains a deeply disrespected case in the view of many members of the Federalist Society, a group of right-wing lawyers and judges closely tied to the Bush Administration. Even Thomas himself argues that he would have opposed the logic of Brown, resting instead on an alternative ground for rejecting segregation–a ground that would have been a losing argument in 1954.

One might be tempted to chalk all of this up to bad journalism, but I believe that there is something more troubling at play. One can't help but infer that the media and perhaps some in the Democratic Party just want race to go away. So significant is this sentiment that even Sharpton's act of telling a story of democratic redemption in the face of repressive antidemocratic forces is seen as divisive, off-message and demagogic. America, they seem to believe, doesn't want to hear about it anymore. Al Sharpton's telling of civil history violates their sense of civility, even though everything he said was absolutely true, and to millions of Americans, absolutely relevant.

This sentiment puts enormous pressure on black politicians like Sharpton to simply shut up about it, deliver the votes, and try not to be too public or too vocal in doing so. The media, rather than interrogating this dynamic as they should, actually facilitate it, and in turn, produce an American public woefully ill-informed about its own history and its own contradictions. (This, no doubt, is the reason why nearly all transcriptions of Sharpton's speech failed to accurately render the names of the three civil rights workers he invoked–Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner–as martyrs in the campaign for democratic freedom.)

The zeal to get beyond race will hasten efforts to drive wedges between black politicians–a move already afoot in the effort to hold up Barack Obama as "the good black" and Sharpton, Jackson and others as the "bad blacks." The New York Times published a review of the convention that declared, "Rather than positioning him within a black tradition, Mr. Obama's speech evoked, through his and his family's varied races, trades and professions, a diversity that aims at unity"–as though the failure to achieve unity on civil rights is the natural consequence of the black discursive tradition, "I Have a Dream" notwithstanding. Even the Republicans weighed in on the good black/bad black question–Bob Novak declared that "the kind of black [the Democrats] want out there representing the party is Senator Obama from Illinois and not Al Sharpton." Perhaps that's true, but any close reading of Obama's own testament–his autobiography, boxes of which languished in his basement no doubt because he didn't declare himself to be the raceless son of an African immigrant in a colorblind world–would reveal that the division that the media celebrate is far more a difference of style than of substance.

Fortunately, there are still many Americans who think for themselves. I've heard from a lot of them, many of them appalled by the reaction to a speech that they felt moved and inspired by. And a surprising number of them are white people–some are even moderate Republicans who bemoan where the Republican Party has taken the country on issues of racial justice, civil liberties and human rights. They tell me that they plan to vote Democratic because of their concerns. These are the people that the media commentators are not speaking to. They might not be the silent majority, but they are quite possibly a substantial minority who just might decide this election.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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