On the wall next to my desk I keep a blowup of an article from a British newspaper. The article recounted how one intellectual had found another morally deficient -- and told him so in no uncertain terms. A "magisterial rebuke," the paper called it, a wonderful term that occurred to me recently. It's precisely what Bill Bradley should have given the Rev. Al Sharpton.
But that's not what the Reverend Al got. Instead, when Bradley, who just made his presidential campaign official, recently appeared before Sharpton's National Action Network, he spoke about the importance of racial unity but never mentioned that his host is the very personification of racial divisiveness.
The visit to Sharpton says something awfully troubling about Bradley. A man seeking the presidency ought to know the difference between a civil rights leader and someone whose very mouth is an anti-personnel weapon, hurting the guilty and the innocent with casual indifference. If, for instance, Sharpton just started to apologize to those he's unjustly accused of racism all these years, it would amount to a second career.
No one who hears Bradley speak about race can fail to be impressed with his evident sincerity and how much the issue means to him. Indeed, he has called racial unity the core of his campaign. "It is who I am," he told his Harlem audience. "It's what I believe. It's what I care most about. It's one of the main motivations for my being in politics in the first place."
Nice -- but the wrong venue. The Reverend Al was one of those, after all, who falsely accused some white law enforcement officials of kidnapping and then raping Tawana Brawley, the 15-year-old black girl who concocted her tale after failing to come home one night. One of those Sharpton fingered was an assistant district attorney named Steven Pagones.
"We state openly that Steven Pagones, the assistant district attorney, did it," Sharpton said back in 1988. "His lawyers say he may or may not sue us. If we're lying, sue us, so we can go into court with you and prove you did it."
Pagones did just that -- and won. Sharpton owes him money -- not that Pagones will ever see it. More important, though, he owes him an apology -- a return of his good name. So far, he has not seen that, either.
The essence of racial unity -- the essence of what Bradley is talking about -- is the fundamental requirement that we treat one another with dignity and respect. Sharpton rarely does that. He casually vilified Pagones and then simply left the scene -- roaring away in his demagoguemobile as if nothing had happened. But something had. He had publicly accused another person of being a racist and a rapist. This is not your usual hello.
But it is for Sharpton. Later, he used the most incendiary and ugly language to refer to Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn -- "diamond merchants" -- and still later he blamed "white interlopers" for the effort to oust a black-owned record store from its Harlem location. The landlord, it turned out, was neither white nor, as was widely believed, Jewish -- but a black church.
This is not a happy record. But it is made worse, far worse, by Sharpton's refusal to issue his own magisterial rebuke -- this time to Khalid Abdul Muhammad. A year ago, this gutter bigot held his first preposterously named "Million Youth March" in Harlem. Sharpton spoke. He did so, he said, because no one was going to tell him where to speak and to whom. But having made his point, he had an obligation to say something about the antisemitic, Catholic-hating racist behind him. He said nothing.
Someone could say -- and someone will -- that Sharpton does some good, too. Fair enough. He has held New York's Finest accountable as they, with depressing regularity, shoot up or beat up some innocent or relatively harmless person. His passion for black people seems keenly felt, and he has -- even his enemies must concede -- an absolute genius for generating headlines.
But racial unity cannot be a mere phrase -- a wispy aspiration. If it means anything at all, it has to encompass a single ethical standard for all people, especially public figures -- an insistence that we all be treated as individuals. Pagones is an individual. "Diamond merchants" are individuals. "Outsiders" in Harlem are individuals. All of them, though, were treated as stereotypes.
Bill Bradley should never have gone to speak to Al Sharpton's organization. By going and then failing to utter a single word of criticism, he increased Sharpton's stature and diminished his own. Bradley's a big man, but by stooping for votes, he made himself look small indeed.