WASHINGTON — The Rev. Al Sharpton is lord of all he surveys.
“Check out this,” the flamboyant civil rights leader told me during breakfast at his organization’s annual meeting last week. He flipped through the program until he found a full-page ad with the logos of Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. “News Corporation Proudly Supports National Action Network’s 2012 Convention,” it said.
Sharpton grinned. “They bash me on Fox News,” he said. “But they sponsor my conference.”
Everybody wants to be on Sharpton’s good side these days. No fewer than five Cabinet officers and a senior White House official went to this year’s convention to kiss his ring. President Obama spoke at last year’s conference and has sought Sharpton’s advice on policy. Sharpton has a show on MSNBC five nights a week, and he doles out airtime to a procession of politicians and journalists (including me).
Wednesday night brought the sweetest moment yet in Sharpton’s long and controversial career: the announcement that Florida authorities would charge Trayvon Martin’s shooter. Sharpton, at the request of the boy’s parents, had done more than anyone else to bring the case national attention.
Just hours before the announcement that George Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder, Martin’s parents held a joint news conference with Sharpton — and a few hours before that, Attorney General Eric Holder, also at the convention, praised Sharpton for his “tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless.”
It was confirmation that Sharpton has pulled off one of the rarest second acts in American public life: from pariah to power player.
“It was a huge moment, because it was the coming together of everything,” Sharpton said, with his trademark vainglory. “We had the attorney general here and one of the biggest civil rights cases of the 21st century, and having to do TV and radio shows at the same time, it was all combined for everybody to see.”
A quarter-century ago, Sharpton burst onto the national scene as the mouthpiece for Tawana Brawley, a black teenager from upstate New York who falsely claimed she had been raped by white men. His image worsened a few years later when Jewish leaders in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, accused him of inflaming anti-Semitism. Then came the 1995 Harlem protest at which he called a Jewish landlord a “white interloper” — followed by an attack on the landlord’s store that left eight people dead.
Now, Sharpton is arguably the most prominent civil rights figure in the country. Without question, he is a kingmaker in Democratic politics. Gone are the polyester sweat suit and gold medallion of yore, replaced by gray business suits on a Sharpton who has shed dozens of pounds. These days he carries both a BlackBerry and an iPhone as he hustles about midtown Manhattan.
After Brawley and Crown Heights and a 67-count indictment over financial problems (he was acquitted), Sharpton ran twice for the U.S. Senate, once for mayor of New York and tried for president in 2004. He latched on to some of the most visible racial cases of the era and went on a 43-day hunger strike in 2001 after being arrested for protesting U.S. military bombing exercises on Vieques, Puerto Rico.
But he established himself as a team player with his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, and by 2008 the Democratic presidential candidates were flocking to his annual convention.
On Thursday, the day after his most visible career triumph, Sharpton worked the ballroom at Washington’s convention center, grinning for photographs. Opening up for his breakfast speaker, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Sharpton regaled the crowd with a story of how Obama invited him and Newt Gingrich to the Oval Office and asked them to launch a five-city tour promoting education reform. When Duncan took the microphone, he requested “a huge round of applause for our leader, Reverend Al Sharpton.”
The reverend is basking in the applause. “I was born with Broadway lights as a backdrop,” Sharpton told me. His model is less Jesse Jackson than it is Glenn Beck. Sharpton told me he’s aiming to do “exactly what Beck did,” using his media platform to rally people.
Unlike Beck, however, Sharpton has mellowed. While arguing that he isn’t the first civil rights leader to go from the streets to the suites, his own transformation “may be more dramatic, because I’m more dramatic. Maybe it’s the James Brown in me.”
And this reborn pariah feels good.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.