As political theater goes -- political theater of the absurd, that is -- you could not make this up.
Sharing a Manhattan stage are Buddhism's most venerated holy man, the Dalai Lama, and presidential candidate Rev. Al Sharpton, the noisy civil rights provocateur not usually associated with ancient prescriptions of meditative calm.
The strange celebrity vibe of this New York gathering is nudged further into The Land of Odd by the presence on stage of an authority on Tibet and Buddhism, Columbia University professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma.
And if your cup of surreality doesn't already runneth over, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons is in the house, waiting his turn on the $70-a-ticket lecture program.
Based on his reputation for bullying and bombast, you might imagine Sharpton, big chest heaving, rousing the crowd with his rafter-rattling mantra: "No justice. No peace."
In a quarter century of the reverend's racial agitation, civil disobedience and artful media manipulation, this is the Sharpton we have come to know, to expect and, in many circles, to detest.
But it is a different and less familiar Rev. Al Sharpton on stage with the Dalai Lama.
It turns out, for better and for worse, we hardly know him at all.
It has been 16 years since Sharpton's high-decibel burst into the national consciousness in the Tawana Brawley case.
For many people, that racially divisive fiasco is all they know -- all they need to know -- about Sharpton. But in the post-Brawley years, beginning in the early '90s, Sharpton gradually has been lowering his volume, broadening his message, moving closer to the mainstream.
He's even worked on his appearance as he tries to reinvent himself as the nation's preeminent civil rights leader.
The result is that Rev. Sharpton no longer can be dismissed as merely a loudmouth New York pariah. Today, his home state politicians seek his endorsement, an often-public courtship that strokes Sharpton's considerable ego.
Since he's gone national, traveling the country in his presidential bid, Sharpton works hard to curb his excesses, although recent examples show that the old Sharpton lurks just beneath the surface.
With no chance of winning the nomination, a well-executed Sharpton campaign could secure his place in the civil rights pantheon and the national Democratic Party. Not to mention gaining the respect and positive attention he has been looking for all his life.
Conjure up, for a moment, the image of Al Sharpton. Peace and love don't exactly spring to mind. Yet here he is, a portrait of introspective repose.
With one hammy thigh crossed over the other, hands in his lap like a choirboy, Sharpton listens raptly to the world's most famous living Buddhist, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
And when it is the reverend's turn to speak, there is no bellow. No flapping arms. Instead, he's talking about -- say what? -- "The love ethic."
Just a few days shy of his 49th birthday, Sharpton addresses this mellow crowd:
"As I got older [I] . . . began to understand that Dr. King, using the love ethic, using the power of forgiveness, using the power of sacrificing one's self for a greater cause, did more to change America for people like me than anybody that had money or military power."
The mostly white audience, abundantly harmonious, applauds with Buddhist abandon.
All done, Sharpton approaches the Dalai Lama, who drapes an ethereal silvery white silk scarf around the reverend's neck. With the stubby antenna of his cell phone poking out of his left fist, Sharpton extends his other hand to the Tibetan spiritual leader, does a respectful bow and exits stage right.
Now he's hustling along West 43rd Street, back to the office, Dalai scarf billowing, pumping his bulging black briefcase. Down 85 pounds from his top weight of 303, he's still a hefty package. But he can really move it. "How you doin', Al?" hollers a guy from across the street. "Reverend Al," says another. "Wazzup?" Sharpton asks, whizzing by.
Whether it's the streets of Harlem or Houston, Sharpton can't walk 100 yards without someone -- white, black, rich, poor -- giving him a big hello.
There is no doubt about it: Rev. Alfred Charles Sharpton Jr. is somebody. But who?
'To somebody white, I'm controversial, a troublemaker. To somebody black, I'm fighting for justice and freedom," Sharpton writes in his 2002 book, "Al on America."
For many years, Sharpton didn't discourage this dichotomy. But this began to change in January 1991, he says, after he was stabbed in the chest and seriously wounded by a drunken white man.
When he was attacked, Sharpton was in his signature protest uniform -- jogging suit, golden medallion and flowing bouffant hairdo, the getup that launched a thousand parodies. He was just emerging from his car in a playground staging area to lead yet another march in the white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, his 29th demonstration against the racially motivated 1989 killing of a black youth, Yusuf Hawkins, 16.
"The stabbing 12 years ago kinda sobered me in many ways, matured me in many ways," he said in one of a series of interviews. "I decided I wanted to make everything I did count."
Dark suits with a subtle stripe replaced the jogging outfits. The Martin Luther King Jr. medallion was packed away. The air went out of his hair. He started his National Action Network (NAN), a civil rights and voter registration group, to provide him with a base. He ran in New York Democratic U.S. Senate primaries in 1992 and 1994 and for mayor in 1997.
What clarified his thinking further, he says, was time to reflect during a 90-day sentence two years ago for trespassing in a protest of U.S. naval bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
"I didn't change my views in jail. I decided on a focused agenda."
The agenda? Oh, to run for president of the United States.
He came to a worldview more nuanced than black and white, one as he puts it, with "many shades of gray."
Some people believe him.
Sharpton will be the first one to point out that he comes to the presidential race with a truckload of baggage. Over the years, he has been accused of being a divisive racist, an anti-Semite and a homophobe. Some black political leaders are as contemptuous of him as whites.
A Newsday investigation in 1988 revealed Sharpton had been an FBI informant in cases involving drugs, prominent blacks and the mob. In 1993 he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to file a tax return for 1986. Other tax issues for other years are still unresolved.
Sharpton has been publicly elusive about his personal financial affairs. However, under oath in a deposition in December 2000 (portions were leaked to The New York Times) he admitted only to owning a $300 Wittnauer wristwatch and a wedding ring. He said he didn't even own the suits he wears but merely had "access" to them. In the deposition, Sharpton said he hadn't filed tax returns since 1998.
A mere two years later, his income was $381,900, as reported on the required Federal Election Commission filing covering 2002. NAN paid him $78,000. Another $75,000 came from his book publisher. The single largest item, $120,000, is in unspecified speaking and consulting fees paid to "Rev. Al Productions."
The day after he announced he was forming a presidential exploratory committee last January, fire destroyed Sharpton's NAN offices in Harlem. Investigators blamed an extension cord.
Six years before the NAN fire, another fire destroyed another Sharpton Harlem office and files, this one the headquarters of his 1997 campaign for mayor of New York. Investigators said a nearby beauty shop was the intended target.
Meanwhile, some of the candidate's individual consulting client records were destroyed in the NAN fire, attorney Michael Hardy wrote the FEC in a letter dated last June 30. The Hardy letter also says Sharpton is "presently under a civil audit" and could owe federal, state and city income taxes. Hardy says that under a New York amnesty program, Sharpton now has paid all back state taxes. City and federal taxes are still at issue.
But his convoluted personal finances, the cooperation with the FBI and his vituperative public feuds over the years with a wide array of New York politicos, black and white, Democrat and Republican, all are sideshow to the main event that made Sharpton known beyond the boroughs.
Sharpton repeatedly has refused to repudiate his involvement in this most infamous of cases when he rushed to the defense of the girl who said she had been beaten, raped and degraded by a gang of white men, a story that a grand jury found to be a hoax.
"I believe Tawana Brawley," he said in a recent Tribune interview. "I believe today something happened to her. . . . I put it to you this way, I ask a lot of people who disagree with me on Brawley, `Do you believe O.J. was guilty?' They say, `Yeah.' I say, `If you have a right to disagree with a jury, why don't I have the right to disagree with a jury?'"
Sharpton said his support for Brawley won him a following because he "stood up" for the teen. "It's according to who you talk to," he said.
If you talk to Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former NAACP executive, you will hear that Sharpton is a shameless self-promoter, a "buffoon," and "a racial demagogue."
Yet even former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who once famously dismissed him as "Al Charlatan," lately has expressed admiration.
Unashamedly liberal and outspoken, Sharpton's campaign has the potential to mobilize young blacks to vote--many of them have never heard of Brawley--and to force the party to address issues of special concern to African-Americans.
Sharpton's group, NAN, whose big golden logo pin he wears on his lapel, has 35 chapters and activity in 120 cities, including Chicago, but not enough true believers for a meaningful national campaign.
The NAN headquarters, the "House of Justice" as it's called, has not been replaced since the fire. Sharpton's current office is an 8-by-10 foot room on the 13th floor of a greenish high rise between the Port Authority bus terminal and a post office facility on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The modest temporary space for Sharpton and four NAN staff is courtesy of Dennis Rivera, head of the state's largest health-care workers' union, the 250,000-member local 1199 Service Employees International Union which is sharing its offices. Both the local and the international union last week endorsed former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
Among the photos undamaged by the fire and displayed on a littered bookshelf in Sharpton's office is one of Dr. King and Jesse Jackson taken the day before King was killed in 1968 and autographed by Jackson in 1996: "The struggle has continuity. Keep Hope Alive JJ." On the campaign trail, Sharpton styles himself as the successor to Jackson, whose reputation as the top national civil rights figure the reverend admires, envies, and, views as declining.
Sharpton's more seasoned, and reasoned, approach in his presidential bid has been exhibited at presidential debates. The legendary agitator even chastised protesters during a debate in Baltimore.
But late last month his old self was again on display, raising anew the question of which is the real Al Sharpton. In a blistering press release, Sharpton played the race card as he took on another black leader, this one Jackson's namesake son.
"It got messy," as one Sharpton staffer put it, after U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) endorsed Dean. Blasting both Dean and Rep. Jackson, Sharpton denounced "any so-called African-American leader that would endorse Dean despite his anti-black record."
Rep. Jackson replied that he did not understand "Rev. Sharpton's attempt to introduce `race' into the campaign by using such rhetoric as `anti-black.'"
Sharpton essentially concedes he has no chance to win. "The question is, you have to define win," he says. "I'm the only cat talk about running who will have ramifications other than just me," he says. The implication: "I lose, you still win" by attracting new Democratic voters who can elect progressive Democrats in local elections around the country.
The first real test of Sharpton's vote getting will be in the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary, where 40 percent of Democratic primary voters are black. Of all the states, he has spent the most time, organization and money there in a campaign where the last two are in extremely scarce supply.
Sharpton's voter registration effort, set to begin later this fall, has a goal of signing up one million new voters by next summer.
The plan relies heavily on a $250,000 donation from billionaire Black Entertainment Television CEO Robert Johnson, a Sharpton supporter, and another $1 million in donated airtime on BET.
"Reverend Al's the only voice in the Democratic Party that is keeping in the forefront the issues that are important to one of the most loyal constituent groups within the Democratic Party: African-Americans," says Johnson. "Too often during the primary season, the African-American vote is taken for granted."
Sharpton repeatedly has promised to launch a voter registration bus tour with hip-hop artists aboard to draw crowds, but it has yet to come off, a lot like Sharpton's often postponed official presidential announcement.
At the center of this tornado of disorganization and delay is Sharpton, fittingly known to friends and staff as, simply, "Rev."
Revved up, energetic, a serial talker, Sharpton is constantly on the road, changing plans, running late. It's pedal to the metal, plenty of engine noise, spinning wheels and spitting gravel. But he's having trouble getting the campaign into second gear.
Two of Sharpton's four campaign staffers, manager Frank Watkins and South Carolina coordinator Kevin Gray, quit in late September, frustrated by trying to create order out of the candidate's chaos. In the most recent candidate financial filings, Sharpton was at the bottom in every category, raising only $113,089 in the three months ending Sept. 30.
Discounting the importance of campaign cash, Sharpton says, "A lot of people have to buy a reputation and a constituency. I came with both."
"I never had a commercial when I ran for mayor of New York and I got one of every three Democratic votes," says Sharpton.
Sharpton's sketchy campaign platform is to move the party back to its liberal roots and away from the moderate center embraced by Bill Clinton. Only then can Democrats "galvanize" voters and "bring out those who have been negatively affected by [Bush] policies, economic policies, foreign policies."
To those he would "galvanize," like churchgoers at the Life Center Cathedral in Algiers, La., his voter registration pitch can be riveting.
"If you're not registered to vote, you really don't have the right to complain about nothin'. . . . Folk don't care you sittin' up mad in the middle of the 'hood. What they care is when you organize and do somethin' about it. You just havin' a ghetto fit don't mean nothin' to nobody," he says.
"Un hunh. You know that's right," hollers a congregant.
On the stump, Sharpton luxuriates in saying what he thinks, advocating policies sometimes simplistic, often costly and always geared to attract voters who feel locked out of the American dream.
"This is about power sharing," he tells a Latino voter registration dinner in Houston, part of Sharpton's effort at broadening his appeal beyond his African-American constituency. "Why are we always assigned to do the street work and get-out-the-vote money while everybody is at the table cutting up the real contracts and the real things that matter?"
`Sharpton, Kenneth (brother/nephew)" reads an entry in the index on the last page of Sharpton's 1996 autobiography, "Go and Tell Pharaoh." That four-word reference is shorthand for the most cataclysmic event in Sharpton's complicated story.
When Sharpton was only 10, his father abandoned the family. Bad as that was, the reason was worse. His father, Alfred Sr., had impregnated his stepdaughter, Tina, his wife's child from an earlier marriage. Dad moved out. Tina had a son, Kenneth, who was at once Al Sharpton's half-brother and his nephew.
The Sharpton family's middle class life evaporated and the riches to rags story -- whether it's the strength of a single mom, the family's plunge into poverty or the fatherless child finding his way -- comes up in nearly every speech.
A search for a dadlike figure has been a central element in Sharpton's development.
Plus, of course, the most high profile One of all:
"Daddy left 'long time ago," Sharpton preaches to a wailing, rocking, congregation. "But I had another Father."
"All right, preacher."
From the pews at the Life Center Cathedral in Algiers, La., they are speaking up, speaking out, shouting and interrupting.
"I've been up. I've been down. I've been leveled to the ground . . . " says Sharpton arms thrown back, on one leg now, the other lifted, foot shaking in the quintessential James Brown stage dance.
"I, I, I, I, I've learned to trust in Jesus. I've learned to trust in God."
Anyone who has ever watched Al Sharpton preach will see why he so often emerges as the clear audience favorite in the debates. In a sense, he's been training for them his whole life.
Sharpton recalls a time when his family was intact, living a bougie black life in Brooklyn -- with a nice home and his and her Cadillacs in the driveway.
Long before his father's perfidy, Sharpton was working on connecting with an audience and being embraced and endorsed by the crowd.
"I used to come home from church. I was 3 years old, 3 1/2, I'd line my sister's dolls up and put my mother's bathrobe on, which was my way of wearing the clergy garment that the pastor wore, and actually preach almost word for word what the bishop had prayed that morning."
"They always liked my sermons," he deadpans.
The dolls of that era were all white, and Sharpton now laughs about the implication. "You just brought something to mind. No wonder I'm doing well in Iowa" -- he's not -- "My first congregation was all white!"
Sharpton soon preached his first public sermon at Brooklyn's Washington Temple Church of God in Christ. He was 4. "It was from St. John, 14th chapter, first verse, `Let not your heart be troubled,'" he recalls.
By 10, he was an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church, a cute chunky fellow with soulful brown eyes and a prodigy ego that had him signing his fourth grade compositions "Reverend Al Sharpton."
It was at this time that his father left. Dad had been a successful landlord ("slumlord" Sharpton revises). Soon after Alfred Sr. walked out, the family he left behind spiraled into welfare and public housing.
Sharpton's mother, Ada, went to work as a domestic.
Fatherless, poor, precocious, Sharpton tells the story of searching out one of his idols, Adam Clayton Powell. While others knew Sharpton as "Wonderboy" or "Boy Preacher," Powell called his adoring acolyte "kid" and Sharpton was there when Powell would hold forth at the back of the Red Rooster in Harlem.
When Sharpton was 14, his mother introduced him to another mentor/father figure, the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr. of Brooklyn's Bethany Baptist Church.
Jones, head of the New York branch of the civil rights organization Operation Breadbasket, made Sharpton head of Breadbasket's youth division and introduced him to Rev. Jackson.
Says Rev. Jones, "You know, kids like that appreciate love and respect where they can find it. Especially, when they find it in people of some prominence."
Looking back on his career of battling for the poor, disaffected and downtrodden, "I think we all know things we could have done better," Sharpton says. "Things we might have done out of vanity. Things we might have done out of emotions rather than thinking it out as best we could. Things like getting into personal disputes at the cost of the bigger picture."
Asked for specifics, this before his latest set-to with the Jacksons, he came as close to an apology as he is likely to get. "I've been quoted saying things critical of Rev. Jackson which was more out for a protege upset with the teacher than something I should have done publicly." About the latest dispute, Sharpton says, "Down the road, I'm sure there will be a reconciliation."
Of all Sharpton's surrogate fathers, the one who has had the most enduring influence is James Brown. They got to know one another when Brown volunteered to perform for a fundraiser for the now defunct National Youth Movement Sharpton founded.
Sharpton says that Brown "raised me" though that's a stretch. They did not become close until Sharpton was well on his way to adulthood. Around this time, in 1973, Brown's own son, Teddy, was killed in a car accident. Sharpton and the singer became even more like father and son.
In what is surely the most unique resume entry among the presidential contenders, Sharpton signed on as road manager to the Godfather of Soul. Sharpton carried the money -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, since Brown insisted on cash up front. "I'm a kid, flying around in a private plane with James Brown, the emperor of blackness," writes Sharpton.
Though he carried the bags, Sharpton said his real job was to be Brown's son. "James Brown taught me about being a man. He gave me life skills that I never got from my own father. He taught me about self-respect, dignity and self-definition," Sharpton says in "Al on America."
At 20, Sharpton married recording artist Marsha Tinsley but it lasted less than a year. Later, Sharpton met Kathy Jordan, a Brown backup singer. They were married in Las Vegas on Halloween, 1980. They have two daughters, Dominique, 17 and Ashley, 16, who, like their mom, keep a low profile. Kathy Jordan Sharpton rarely grants interviews.
Sharpton says he adopted his bouffy, chemically processed hairdo as "my bond" with James Brown in 1981 at Brown's request before Sharpton accompanied the singer to the Ronald Reagan White House. He promised Brown he wouldn't change his hairstyle while the singer is alive.
In fact, the current version of the hair, like Sharpton himself, is inching toward mainstream, a modified, streamlined, comparatively toned-down affair.
Even so, Sharpton remains the most memorable and least predictable of the nine Democrats in the race for president. As one after another is eliminated, drops out, goes broke, Sharpton promises this: He will not go away.