A Reasonable Man

How the Rev. Al Sharpton became the most thoughtful man on cable television

At a recent party to toast the one-year anniversary of MSNBC’s 6 p.m. hour, one of the news network’s on-air personalities offered up a confession. “I don’t know if I would have brought Al Sharpton on to do a show!” he told the assembled guests.

The speaker was the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Later, he recalled that he originally took a meeting with MSNBC executives believing that he would be pitching the network on a weekly series. Instead, he was offered a nightly program all his own. He started as a temporary replacement for Ed Schultz at 6 p.m. when Schultz moved to 10 p.m. in the rejiggering prompted by Keith Olbermann’s departure. Before long, the hour was rechristened PoliticsNation With Al Sharpton.

“The only thing I was worried about was my bosses,” MSNBC President Phil Griffin said of the decision to name Sharpton a primary host. “But he’d already been on for a month and a half. If we’d said that he was the permanent host on that first day, I’m not sure we’d have pulled it off.”

MSNBC was willing to let Sharpton travel (provided he gave enough advance notice to allow for a studio to be provided on the road) and wrote a provision into his contract allowing him to continue his activism, Sharpton said.

If it weren’t for his civil rights organization, the National Action Network, he added, “I had the background of 50 percent of the people doing this.” But he is Al Sharpton of the National Action Network. He is also the Al Sharpton who enthusiastically fanned a media firestorm 25 years ago with his advocacy on behalf of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed—falsely, it now appears—to have been raped by a group of white men, an incident that cemented the young civil rights leader’s influence and brought him a measure of infamy. He ended up losing a defamation lawsuit filed by an assistant district attorney accused of raping Brawley and was immortalized by Tom Wolfe as The Bonfire of the Vanities’ “Rev. Reginald Bacon,” a shrewd manipulator of the city’s media. Then, there was his endlessly caricatured tracksuit-and-chains image, characterized in a parade of Sean Delonas cartoons for Page Six that depicted the reverend as a Violet Beauregarde-like sphere.

Not to mention his unsuccessful, if impressive, run for the presidency in 2004.

Perhaps it was a desire to put his reputation as a firebrand behind him that accounted for Sharpton’s decidedly sober debut. “His first show was stiff,” Griffin told the crowd at the PoliticsNation party. “There was no Rev.”

Over the course of his first year on air, though, Sharpton has managed to uncork those cable-friendly “Rev” qualities—his undisguised political advocacy, for instance, and a compelling style of oratory that finds him punching rhetorical questions with a furious solemnity that lends the daily news churn an unusual hint of gravitas.

Still, his reputation notwithstanding, Sharpton is far from the angriest man in prime time.

“He’s controversial,” Griffin said. “But a lot of people only know him from a few things. You don’t understand that he’s a good person. He’s fair. You don’t want to be judged for just a few things in your life, do you?”

We noted that his missteps had been particularly public and might color potential viewers’ impressions before they even tuned in. “It’s the civil rights movement! He has to do things that he’s misunderstood for. Maybe he’s made a mistake or two—but his heart is in the right place.”

He’s even happy to give airtime to his ideological foes. “I fought with Newt Gingrich,” Sharpton reminded The Observer at his party. He was puffing on a cigar, his only vice after he adopted a vegetarian diet that brought his weight down to a svelte 150 pounds. (He’d lost weight during his 2001 arrest on the island of Vieques, then gained much of it back while running for president—“room service when you get back to the hotel, South Carolina, fried chicken three times a day”—and lost it, once more, before he even knew he’d be on television each day.) He was looking good.

“I fought with Pat Buchanan,” he added. “And I had a good time with Michael Steele!”

For the significant portion of the nation that identifies as liberal (and the smaller number that watches MSNBC), Sharpton—cast as a clown and a villain throughout the late 1980s and 1990s—is, at 57, suddenly an establishment figure. “The Rev is only going to grow, because more people are going to accept him,” Griffin noted. “He’s going to break all these notions of who he is.”

Sharpton, who early in his career served as the tour manager for James Brown, borrowed more than a hairstyle from his mentor.

According to Sharpton’s lawyer, Sanford Rubinstein, “he’s the hardest-working man in show business.”

Sharpton’s office is decorated with blown-up covers of Newsweek and the New York Post bearing his image, and a smaller frame containing three separately matted photos, portraits of the reverend as a younger man. One shows him preaching at age 7. One has him posing with James Brown. The third is of Brown and Sharpton meeting a young Michael and Janet Jackson.

Asked what the biggest misconception about him is, Sharpton cited the notion that he craves media attention and fame for its own sake. He left his role as Brown’s tour manager in order to focus full time on organizing and activism. “If you had a young guy out of Brooklyn, out of welfare, dead broke, who starts flying around the world with Jay-Z, then tells Jay-Z, ‘I know I ain’t got no money but I’m committed to social justice’—that defines him! If I had wanted money, I could’ve stayed with James Brown. You can disagree with me, but at least give me credit for having sacrificed. Because there was no guarantee that when I went to Howard Beach that it was going to be a national issue. Or Bensonhurst. Or whatever! Or that one day I would get MSNBC and radio and all that.”

Brown, he added, thought his young protégé was crazy.

Sharpton came to prominence during a period of extreme racial enmity in New York, speaking out on one notorious case after another, fulminating before the news cameras and leading crowds of protesters with his now-familiar rallying cry: “No justice, no peace!”

His reference to Howard Beach recalled the 1986 death of Michael Griffith, who was struck by traffic after being chased by a white mob in Queens (Sharpton’s activism resulted in the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case). In the Bensonhurst incident, in 1989, a mob of white residents beat four black teenagers, killing one, Yusef Hawkins. Sharpton’s outspokenness in that case resulted in an attempt on his life.

After a few decades of dancing on the city’s racial fault lines, jousting with guests on basic cable must seem like a pretty low-key gig.

Sharpton’s 2011 television debut occurred as MSNBC was finding its footing as a liberal answer to right-leaning juggernaut Fox News. Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times recently referred to the network’s mission as “counterprogramming, not coverage,” and counted Sharpton as part of “a growing cast of anchor-bloviators.” At his party, the host didn’t deny that MSNBC and Fox had similarities: “We’re people with opinions,” he said.

“People don’t watch Bill O’Reilly or me for the weather report,” he continued. “They know we have an opinion. We said in the beginning I wasn’t objective. No one who watches my show thinks I’m objective. Fox is not objective.”

He used the weather-report crack again at a recent Saturday broadcast from the National Action Network’s “House of Justice” in Harlem. The crowd roared its approval, as they did with most of his laugh lines; an elderly woman in the audience remarked, “I call him the next Chris Rock.”

Before Sharpton’s entrance at 10 a.m. sharp at the Saturday NAN gathering, which is a hybrid of sorts between church service and activist meet-up, a female speaker decried Nicki Minaj’s apparent endorsement of Mitt Romney (which the rapper herself has disavowed). “When I look at certain celebrities, I look at what they’ve done. How engaged are you in community activism? If you’ve never seen them on the ground, why would what they say matter?”

A choir member announced, “We should be thankful that we are blessed, that we are educated, that we can tell somebody something.” Then Sharpton took the stage, swaying to the beat but unsmiling.

“What do we waaaaaant,” he sang. The room was packed with guests who knew the answer: “justice.” Sharpton added, “Some people cheat and come at 10, because that’s when I get up here. But you don’t have a seat this morning.”

He discussed, briefly, the Trayvon Martin killing this year; he was frustrated, he told the crowd, that he had been perceived to be seeking publicity from a case he took credit for bringing to the public’s attention. (After Sharpton urged due process for George Zimmerman, Martin’s shooter, he was criticized by some media observers for full-throated political advocacy on top of his journalistic duties.) “Later the press tried to act like we rode in on the publicity,” he said. “No. We started the publicity. Was I an ambulance chaser? No, I’m an ambulance.”

He exhorted the crowd to never lose the power to define themselves. “In my life I’ve had ups and downs. I keep going. You know why I like having my MSNBC show on at 6 o’clock? Not 4 o’clock or 9 o’clock? I think about my critics, who said I’d never do anything. My show comes on at 6 o’clock, about the time my critics come home and put dinner on the table!”

Like his office, Sharpton’s House of Justice is decorated with images from his past. The Newsweek cover is there, as is a New York Daily News front page, “GIVE ME THE TRUTH,” about the reverend’s quest to learn about whether he was biologically related to Sen. Strom Thurmond. Hung above the stage, to the left of the podium, is a framed picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., looking down and to the right. It appears he’s gazing approvingly at whomever is speaking.

Still, Sharpton is looking for real approval these days—and not just from his amen corner.

“We can get 300 or 400 in the room on Saturday,” he explained, “and 50,000 more on the radio. OK. When do you stop playing to the 300 people in the room who will clap at anything you say? And when do you deal with the 50,000 who are listening, half of whom may not be on your side but would be if you make a sound argument?”

In September 2011, its first full month on air, PoliticsNation averaged 598,000 nightly viewers; in the first two weeks of this month, the show is hovering around 912,000 per evening. Viewership in the 25-54 demographic has nearly doubled as well. (The program comes in second in its time slot among cable-news outlets in both metrics, behind Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier.) While Sharpton claims that his Saturday-morning audience is tuning in, PoliticsNation executive producer Matt Saal described the viewership of MSNBC as, traditionally, affluent. “He speaks for people who aren’t of means. He’s making sure we’re speaking not necessarily to those people—but for those people.”

Although he’s making fewer headlines these days, Sharpton finally seems to be achieving a measure of respectability. Knowing what he knows now, he was asked, does he regret anything about the fiery rhetorical style he employed back in the day? “So, I was in my 30s when people first met me,” he said, “and I would say things, or react, or be personal. You learn over time, well, you may be more effective not making personal attacks. Not because it looks better—but because you may really want to win the case. You may really want to win people over. So, the question is, is you being flippant more important than winning? Or is winning more important than you being flippant?”

He leaned back, almost horizontal, in his desk chair.

“I regret personalizing the battles rather than keeping it on public policy,” he said.

By way of example, Sharpton recalled that he’d once had a habit of referring to then-New York Mayor Ed Koch as “Bull Koch,” in reference to the civil rights-era scourge Bull Connor. “There are a lot of people who supported Koch who don’t see him as Bull Koch but would have supported us on not cutting services. Again, the question is, when do you put winning as your goal rather than just being flippant?”

Indeed, if anything, Sharpton seems not to take politics personally at all these days; he has dinner with O’Reilly several times a year and is friends with MSNBC morning host and former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough. “He’s not a phony,” Sharpton noted. “And I get along with any conservative if they believe what they’re saying.”

Would a younger Al Sharpton have been able to say that?

“I don’t think I would have said that. I would have gotten along with them. But I wouldn’t have said it.”

Now that he’s adopted a more conciliatory tone and taken his seat among the media elites, Sharpton was asked if he’d spotted any likely successors for the role of chief civil rights bomb-thrower he played so effectively for so long. He declined to name anyone specific, but he noted that whoever came after him would have opportunities he had never imagined. “A guy said to me soon after we started PoliticsNation, he said, ‘Rev. Sharpton, I always saw you as an activist, you came out of the post-King movement. Would Dr. King have had a radio and talk show?’ “I told him that there was no MSNBC in Dr. King’s time, so we will never know!”