Pompadour With a Monkey Wrench

Al Sharpton will presumably have a moment in the spotlight at this summer's Democratic convention. But his goal has never been the presidency; he wants to become the leader of Black America. Problem is, that job no longer exists
"How does a movement-based political agenda sustain itself in the face of the success that it itself has wrought? It doesn't. It becomes farce." Debra J. Dickerson, The End of Blackness

The Democratic primary race was well under way last year when I went looking for Al Sharpton's national campaign headquarters. It was a hot late-summer day in Washington, D.C., and steam rose from the streets as I drove south from downtown toward Fort McNair, looking for the address given me by Frank Watkins, Sharpton's campaign manager.

I had met Watkins and his candidate two months earlier, on a day when they were shopping for office space. At that point they were just getting started. Sharpton had formally announced his candidacy only weeks before, and the primary season wouldn't begin until January. He strolled noncommittally behind Watkins through a spacious second-floor location over a big Greek restaurant off Dupont Circle, listening with his head tilted and his eyes at half mast as his campaign manager described how each space might be used, where phone banks and computers might be set up, where volunteers might stuff envelopes or unpack posters and pamphlets. I pictured the place, months ahead, alive with the industry of democracy.

Now the race was on. The nine candidates had already met for several televised debates, in which Sharpton's cheerful pugnacity had made him an early audience favorite. He was clearly the most entertaining politician on the stump. His name showed surprising strength in some initial polls. Of course, no one really thought the notorious Harlem rabble-rouser could be elected President, but Sharpton was an undeniable force in New York City politics; and if he could rally black voters nationwide, the way Jesse Jackson had in his two 1980s presidential campaigns (both involving Watkins), he might arrive at the party's convention, in Boston, with real clout. To accomplish that he would have to score big in the District of Columbia's otherwise insignificant January balloting. It was an unofficial and nonbinding event, but because it was the first actual tally and a majority of its voters were African-American, it would gauge Sharpton's core strength—or lack of it. This was one reason why he wanted his campaign headquarters here.

The address Watkins had given me was nowhere near Dupont Circle; evidently, they had decided on a different place. I found the street in a neighborhood lined with tall apartment buildings, but as I was counting down to the right address, the street abruptly ended. Before me was a small park, and surrounding it were blocks of two-story row houses. I parked my car and went looking on foot.

It seemed an unlikely place for a political office, so I stopped a man on the sidewalk and asked for help. He made a face that mirrored my doubts. "There are no offices here," he said. "Just homes."

When I found the right number, I was standing before a simple residence. A dusty old motorcycle, long unused, was parked to one side of the front door. There were no posters or festive bunting. I double-checked the address and rang the bell.

Watkins opened the door. A dour man with thinning hair, he wore shorts, bedroom slippers, and a red T-shirt over his small pot belly. Noting my surprise at the surroundings, he executed a slight bow and swept his arms wide. "Welcome to the Al Sharpton for President national campaign headquarters," he said.

For me, it was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy glimpses the man behind the curtain. I hadn't expected a juggernaut; Sharpton was at best a minor candidate. But even the most rudimentary campaign has an office and a staff. Watkins was running this one from his living room.

He wasn't happy about it. In fact, just a few weeks later, as the primaries were about to begin, he would resign. This would leave the Sharpton campaign moneyless, virtually staffless, organizationless, and—as the primaries would show—supportless. The campaign had only one thing.

A candidate.

Booker T. Bellbottoms

Of all the details I learned about Al Sharpton while sifting through the alp of stories devoted to him since he bellowed his way to notoriety more than fifteen years ago in New York City, the one that struck me most was this: he was in grade school when he began calling himself "Reverend." After evincing a precocious aptitude for preaching, Sharpton was "ordained" by his pastor, a precipitate step that in his Pentecostal church required no education, training, or certification.

Picture him behind a classroom desk, a fat, imperious ten-year-old boy, inscribing his name at the top of an assignment, gripping his pencil mightily, practicing the dips and curves of his new honorific. Picture him standing his ground before a surprised teacher, or proclaiming his sudden eminence to the other children on the playground, where he excels at none of the contests that earn respect in a boy's world. These are the images that came to mind last June, when I saw Sharpton in person for the first time, a fifty-year-old man arriving to give a speech at a political conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, in Washington.

He briskly and commandingly crossed the lobby, head up, eyes forward, heedless of the fuss stirred by his arrival—camera lights, shouts of "Reverend!," and the sudden coalescence of a small mob. Sharpton in person is theatrically aloof. "Rev" (as he is called by his intimates) is said to have lost a hundred pounds in recent years; he once topped 300, and favored pastel leisure suits and a heavy gold cross around his neck. He is still a long way from passing through the eye of a needle. When he walks, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet, he leads with belly. These days the gold cross is gone, and he's attired in conservative, well-tailored suits. His famous helmet of conked hair, which used to descend in stiffly contoured waves to his shoulders, is graying now, and has been trimmed to form a bob that protrudes a good six inches from the back of his head, ballast for the great round expanse of his outthrust jowls and chin.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. Road Work, a collection of his magazine writing, will be published in the fall. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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