I disagree with Sharpton across the board—Israelis and Palestinians have more common ground than we do. But I respect him as a Democrat working to put the “candid” back in “candidate.” Take last week’s appearance on “Hardball.” I stood feet from Sharpton as he faced off against host Chris Matthews at the Institute of Politics, and I was impressed by the backbone he displayed.
Sharpton started out by toeing the party line, announcing that the primary goal of the Democratic party was to keep their “eye on the prize, which is bringing Bush out.” Big surprise. But he soon distinguished himself from his rivals as the first to leap from Bush’s Iraq “bandwagon”—pointing out that he declared his antiwar stance on “Hardball” before Rep. Dennis Kucinich had even entered the presidential race.
When Sharpton criticized his fellow Democrats for their wishy-washy positions, he described them as “disingenuous.” At first, I was less than impressed by his choice of words. “Disingenuous” is cozy and soft. It screams political correctness. Matthews, presumably thinking along similar lines, suggested that his guest substitute “dishonest.” But Sharpton refused—and when his persistent host repeatedly asked why he wouldn’t change his phrasing, he simply replied “Because I’m talking, and you’re not going to put words in my mouth.” Amen, Reverend.
Later in the broadcast, Sharpton was confronted with a potential skeleton in the closet as a student asked about decade-old references to “white men in caves” and “Greek homos.” I tensely crouched in position to pounce, expecting a sidestep or flat-out denial. Instead, Sharpton confidently gave the context for his remarks and left the “to the best of my recollection” defense for another day and another candidate. He did not express regret. He did not pander to his potentially appalled audience or try to spin or explain away his faux pas. He had said it. He had meant it. And that was that.
Sharpton is on the fringes of the Democratic party, and without a national party choosing his words for him, he answers only to himself. The items on his agenda—including extending statehood to the “disenfranchised citizens of the District of Columbia” and letting Puerto Rico become an autonomous nation—show that Sharpton is taking full advantage of this independence.
Sharpton may not win in 2004. In fact, with recent polls showing less than one percent of voters supporting Sharpton in New Hampshire, it’s safe to say that he will not win in 2004. But it’s refreshing to see someone sound their views without thinking of the political ramifications.
It’s certainly bold of Sharpton to proclaim that “anybody running is four times better on their worst day than George Bush on his best day.” But I left the “Hardball” taping last week with a newfound appreciation for a candidate I’d never taken seriously in the past. Sharpton is not playing a political game. Last week, he was not manipulating or deceiving the audience. Spectators left with a true sense of what he stood for as a person and as candidate. Maybe the other presidential hopefuls should take a clue from their low-polling opponent.
—Tyler O’Brien is an editorial comper.