Al Sharpton has a few things to say about how journalists keep rummaging through what he calls his "baggage."
"People get away with saying things about people who are colored," he growls.
As Sharpton holds forth over a cup of coffee at Capitol Hill's Hyatt Regency, a cameraman is recording every word for a forthcoming movie about Reverend Al. The newly minted presidential candidate, just back from Burbank, Calif., where he chatted up Jay Leno, moments earlier finished a roaring speech that brought members of the Democratic National Committee to their feet.
So should reporters keep bringing up Tawana Brawley?
Sharpton, after all, had to pay a $65,000 defamation judgment for falsely accusing a New York prosecutor of raping the teenager. What's more, he also pleaded guilty to failing to file a tax return in 1986. He once worked as an FBI informant. He's served time in jail for past protests. He lost all three of his attempts to win local elections. He's turned himself from a jumpsuit-wearing Brooklyn activist adept at fanning the flames of racial strife into a respectable, if somewhat implausible, candidate for the White House.
"I knew going in they would try to beat up the messenger," Sharpton says. "People are just trying to demonize me. They did the same thing to Jesse," meaning Jackson. "If I get bruised up in the process, that's all right."
Here's what Sharpton has going for him: He's a great speaker, and has been since he started preaching at the age of 4. He's funny. He's incredibly media-savvy. He's audacious. He connects with at least a portion of black America. He knows how to poke and prod and bob and weave and draw attention to himself and make other people squirm.
All of which makes Sharpton a challenge for campaign scribes.
"He should be treated seriously, which means his controversies of the past should be delved into," says New York magazine columnist Michael Tomasky. "Let's say Dick Gephardt, back in the '80s, had accused a man of rape who was later found to be innocent. Wouldn't that be a controversy?"
"I try to mention Tawana Brawley every time I write about him," says Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. At the same time, he says, "There ain't no secret about Al Sharpton's background. I get perturbed by a lot of Sharpton-haters who don't want to look beyond that. The coverage of Sharpton too often misses the boat of how he doesn't have to win to be a factor."
Sharpton, 48, sounds exasperated at constantly having to explain himself. Everyone in politics, he says, has some baggage.
"Some of the things brought up are legitimate questions," he says. "Some are absurd, beyond the ridiculous."
The case involving Brawley, a black teenager whose 1987 claims of being kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a group of white men were found by a New York state grand jury to be fabricated, is fair game, says Sharpton, who championed her cause. So are his past tax problems.
"Then you get into all the craziness: Did Sharpton incite Crown Heights? How do I incite a riot that I didn't know was going on?"
If this continues, says Sharpton, recalling the violent end to a 1991 protest march he led in Brooklyn's largely white Bensonhurst section, "I guess they'll blame me for getting stabbed."
Blooming on the Stump Sharpton gets only polite applause when he is introduced to the DNC gathering, following such top-tier candidates as Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt and preceding John Edwards. But before long he has the crowd on its feet.
"We cannot be tricked into using diversity to cover up the nomination of reactionary judges," he says. "During the abolitionist movement, we didn't fight to have more diversified slave masters."
Slamming trickle-down economics, he says: "We never got the trickle, we got the down."
Griping about the military's failure to find Osama bin Laden, he cracks: "A man who comes out every two months with a new video! Bin Laden has out more videos than any rock star in Hollywood!"
And he brings down the house with this line about George W. Bush: "He's the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election."
Sharpton will clearly "generate some excitement," says veteran analyst Charlie Cook of National Journal. "I'm trying to avoid the metaphor of adding a splash of color to a beige field. He's a very bright guy and willing to say things other folks won't."
"This is partly a racial assumption," says Tomasky, "but people are going to say, 'He's smarter than I thought.' "
But Sharpton has his share of media critics. A "professional troublemaker," says syndicated columnist Robert Novak. The Washington Post's Mary McGrory writes of "Sharpton's screaming unfitness to be chief executive." Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby calls him a "vicious liar," "dangerous bigot" and "noxious racial lout."
Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy says Sharpton must make amends for the Brawley fiasco. "Why not practice what you preach, Al, and fess up to the people you deceived?" she writes.
Sharpton admits that some Democrats view him as a "nightmare" who will drag the party down with his left-wing views. But, he says, "I want to give a wake-up call to the party and bring a lot of disaffected people back into the process. Who can talk to them better than me?"
But surely he knows he can't win the nomination?
"There are nine people running," Sharpton says. "I'll tell you a little secret between you, me and The Washington Post: Eight people ain't going to win." A respectable showing, of course, would firmly establish him as the new Jesse Jackson.
He scoffs at the notion his past losses should disqualify him from seeking the presidency. After all, he says, Richard Nixon won the White House after losing a bid for governor of California.
Sharpton is arguably brilliant at handling the press, but with a tiny staff and on-the-fly ethos, his low-budget campaign is a study in barely organized chaos. After his DNC speech, a "Sharpton Express" bus idled outside the Hyatt, ready to take him to a shopping mall rally. But the driver and an aide on board couldn't agree on whether they were heading to Tysons Corner, Lynchburg or nowhere. The trip was later canceled because of a downpour.
Meanwhile, a reporter with an appointment to see Sharpton searched the hotel in vain, only to find aides who were unaware of the interview that had been confirmed several times. Sharpton granted it anyway, interrupted only by his ever-ringing cell phone while a cameraman for D.A. Pennebaker, who chronicled the Clinton campaign in the movie "The War Room," taped the whole scene.
Producer Frazer Pennebaker says he knows a cinematic star when he sees one. "He's such an incredible orator," Pennebaker says. "When he's talking to people in Harlem, he shades the nuances of words, and when he's in New Hampshire, he shades it differently and he's speaking their language. It's mesmerizing."
All Sides of Al Al Sharpton is on television, talking about his hair.
Jay Leno is paying rapt attention.
"James Brown, the godfather of soul . . . kind of adopted me," Sharpton says. "I was like his son. . . . He took me to his hairstylist and had him style my hair like his."
Leno asks about the reverend's pal Michael Jackson. Sharpton tries to joke about all the nose-job coverage, but the "Tonight Show" host presses him: "The whole young-boy thing is pretty disturbing, is it not?"
Sharpton sidesteps the question, noting that Jackson has produced billions for the music industry. "We've gotta deal with all sides of the story," he says.
This is more or less the plea he makes for himself. Unlike the other Democratic candidates, Sharpton is a celebrity, a man of the streets, both admired and reviled, as likely to be asked about rap music or boxing or race as about his economic investment plan.
He waves off the notion that he is running to call attention to himself. After all, "60 Minutes" has profiled him twice in the last decade.
"There's never been a news cycle I wasn't in," he says. "I don't need to run to be in the news cycle."
Over the years, Sharpton has inched his way toward mainstream respectability. He shed the jogging suits and gold chains, 80 pounds and a rabble-rousing style in which he led street protests at the slightest racial provocation -- prompting Ed Koch to call him "Al Charlatan."
This has produced a steady stream of pieces about Sharpton reinventing himself during his losing campaigns for the Senate and New York mayor. A New York Times Magazine piece on "the post-Sharpton Sharpton" detailed his "tireless handling of the media." By the time the 2000 campaign rolled around, it was considered obligatory for Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton to meet with him, and local Democrats routinely pay their respects.
"All these people come to my headquarters two or three times a year. Are they masochists?" Sharpton asks. "Colin Powell returns my phone calls."
When talk turns back to his history of high-profile controversies, Sharpton is ready. "The press should do what they ask of me: Back it up."
All right, let's go to the videotape.
It's difficult to understand, more than 15 years later, why Sharpton hasn't expressed some regret for his role in the Brawley hoax, if only to put the matter behind him.
" 'Cause I don't believe nothing happened to Tawana Brawley," he declares. "If I was this great opportunist, it would be easy for me to say nothing happened to her. I did the same thing in Brawley I did in every other case. I looked at the evidence. I should have assumed she was lying?"
But after a grand jury found that Brawley was perpetrating a scam -- and a trial jury found that Sharpton had defamed Upstate New York prosecutor Steven Pagones -- couldn't he express some sympathy for those who were unfairly tarred?
"She identified Pagones. I was her spokesperson," Sharpton insists. "I cannot turn around in what I said I believed." He notes that he defended five youths accused of brutally raping the woman known as the Central Park jogger -- and that those convictions were voided last year after new evidence emerged.
Sharpton also feels unfairly accused in the December 1995 arson that killed eight people at Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem. Four months earlier, Sharpton had urged a boycott of the store, saying: "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street."
Sharpton later brushed aside charges of anti-Semitism, saying: "If I really was trying to do something, I would have said this Jewish, ah, ah, bastard."
He dismisses the criticism now, saying: "No one even remotely said my comments in September caused a fire in December."
That hasn't stopped some people from trying to make the connection. Former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, in a letter to The Washington Post, accused Sharpton of instigating the arson. Sharpton filed a $30 million lawsuit, prompting a settlement that involved a statement of regret from party officials. He also filed a $20 million lawsuit against the New York Post over an editorial making a similar charge; a judge tossed out the suit.
The man keeps the lawyers busy. He's suing HBO (and federal authorities) for $1 billion over last year's airing of a secretly recorded FBI videotape from 1983 in which Sharpton neither encourages nor discourages an undercover agent offering to sell him kilos of cocaine.
On the tax front, Sharpton was acquitted of fraud and grand larceny in 1990, but pleaded guilty three years later to a misdemeanor charge of failing to file a tax return. He was fined $5,000 and agreed to pay back state taxes for 1986 and 1987.
"It's not about cheating on taxes," Sharpton says, insisting the case was political in nature. He ticks off the names of other black politicians who have been hit with tax charges.
During the 1991 riot in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn that claimed the life of an Orthodox Jewish student, Sharpton complained about "the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights." When Jewish leaders later criticized him, he said, "You don't even have a Hymietown to hang on me," referring to Jesse Jackson's infamous slur of New York.
As in the case of the Harlem arson, no investigation ever pinned blame on Sharpton.
Defying Expectations Seconds after a couple of questions are e-mailed to his publicist, Al Sharpton calls on his cell phone.
He wants to know why he isn't getting a publicity boost from the latest Time-CNN poll showing him tied with John Edwards for fourth place among Democrats, with 7 percent each, and ahead of Howard Dean's 3 percent.
"You talk about double standards," he says.
What's more, while some commentators noted that an earlier poll found Sharpton trailing Joe Lieberman among black Democrats, the new survey has him leading the pack with 20 percent of the African American vote.
"There's no story on that," he says. "Some reporters only want to report a story on someone like me when it [turns out] their way." (The same poll, though, shows that 35 percent of whites have an unfavorable view of Sharpton, the highest negative rating for any candidate.)
He drifts back to the various lawsuits and investigations, saying that journalists are either too lazy or too biased to be fair and balanced.
"There's a backlash coming," he says. "A lot of people say, 'They are just telling lies.' They make themselves look foolish when they overreach."