The Rev. Al Sharpton will score a big personal and political coup tomorrow when Vice President Biden makes a visit to the Sheraton New York hotel in midtown to address the annual meeting of the National Action Network, Sharpton’s organization.
In addition to Biden, whose schedule was confirmed by a White House press official, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan also are speaking at Sharpton’s conference. The ability to draw three cabinet heavyweights–especially the vice president–stamps Sharpton as a civil rights leader with high-level access to President Obama’s inner circle.
It also explodes the storyline, popular in the mainstream media, that Sharpton and other black civil-rights activists have been eclipsed or rendered irrelevant by young political dynamos like Obama, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
And promoters of the “new generation” myth usually overlook the ages of the various players. While Sharpton comes across as much older than Obama–perhaps because the reverend has been a public figure for decades–the two men are actually close in age (Obama 47, Sharpton 54).
More important than age is the reality of different political traditions and different public styles. Sharpton, who has never been slow to jump onto a picket line or controversy, cut his eyeteeth as a 16-year-old aide to Jesse Jackson, while Obama steered a cautious path through the rough-and-tumble of Chicago machine politics.
The result is two men with fundamentally different instincts who became friends during the long presidential campaign.
Older civil rights veterans like Jackson and ex-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young dismissed the future President with crude attacks, like Young’s ribald remarks about Bill Clinton dating more black women than Obama and Jackson’s comment, caught on videotape, that he’d like to castrate the candidate.
Sharpton, by contrast, talked to Obama and his top aides about strategy and tactics on an almost daily basis following Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses. Sharpton–well aware of his ability to polarize voters–also often deliberately remained outside the campaign limelight to avoid saddling Obama with extra baggage.
This week proves that Sharpton’s help has been duly noted and appreciated by Obama.
And presiding over the session, with no small trace of glee, will be a New Yorker flexing his new muscle as a national powerbroker with A-list access to the Oval Office: Al Sharpton.