The Rev. Al Sharpton will hit the height of his power and importance today. The annual convention of his National Action Network kicks off in New York and will host an extraordinary special guest at its gala dinner tonight: the president of the United States.

If you’ve followed Sharpton’s career the way I have you’ll understand how extraordinary tonight will be. He was once seen as the rabble-rousing, portly preacher in jogging suits with a James Brown hairdo. Actually, some people still see him as the hub of the Tawana Brawley hoax that inflammed racial tensions far beyond Wappinger Falls, N.Y. Today, Sharpton is a slimmed down, savvy and pragmatic civil rights leader in business suits — and a James Brown hairdo.

Sharpton’s ascent to power-player status has been long. And he has worked hard to achieve it. When he’s not traveling the country speaking or guest preaching or protesting (yep, he still does that from time to time), you can find him at his permanent breakfast perch at the Regency Hotel talking with the known and unknown. And you can find his name frequently on the visitor’s log at the White House.

But tonight is different. President Obama is coming to him. Even Sharpton must be pinching himself at how far he’s come.