Jewish World ReviewMay 3, 2004 / 12 Iyar, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Sharpton gets a speaking role, Kerry gets new set of problems | A few months ago, back when he was an active candidate for his party's nomination, Al Sharpton told Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe that he intended to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Boston one way or another. "In the hall or in the parking lot," the Rev. Al said.

After Sharpton's weak showing in the primaries, it looked as if he would be setting up his soapbox among the sport-utility vehicles. But that changed on Thursday when John Kerry brought Sharpton in from the cold.

Asked by Jacque Reid of the Black Entertainment Network if Sharpton would be welcome on the podium in Boston, Kerry responded with not entirely spontaneous enthusiasm. "If he wants to do it, I'd like him to do it," the presumptive candidate said. "I think he'd do a terrific job. I think he'll add something.... I think he can be very, very helpful in motivating people, registering people."

Sharpton is understandably delighted. His bitter rival, Jesse Jackson, is not so delighted.

Once upon a time, Jackson was the man in charge of motivation and registration for the Democrats' African-American wing. But he has yet to be invited to address this year's convention. According to John Mitchell, Jackson's scheduler, the Jackson camp is still waiting to hear from the national committee. "When we know, we'll let the world know," Mitchell promised Friday.

By contrast, it was Kerry who let the world know Sharpton is coming to the party. "[This] is my call.... It's my invitation," he told BET.

Kerry is taking a gamble. Right now, the Rev. Al says he's planning a moderate address: "I'll talk about the issues that interest me, but I'm also going to tell the convention anger alone doesn't change things."

The speech is a few months off. Kerry has to keep Sharpton in a mellow mood. An angry rant about slavery reparations or the evils of American imperialism could Pat Buchanan-ize the convention.

If Sharpton does stick to the script, Kerry faces a different problem. The Rev. Al is good at sound bites and debate repartee, but he's a truly great orator. Give him 10 minutes, and he will electrify the convention. Jesse Jackson delivered a brilliant speech in 1988 and made candidate Michael Dukakis seem dull by comparison. Kerry, an indifferent speaker, faces a similar problem with the Rev. Al.

Kerry also has to find a way to pacify Jackson. This week, several Jacksonites accused Kerry of excluding blacks from his inner circle. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) told The Associated Press that even the minority advisers Kerry has lack experience. Kerry needs "senior policy people who know people from one end of the country to the other," Jackson said. "The senator should remedy this very quickly."

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Inviting Sharpton to the podium in Boston was presumably not the remedy Jackson had in mind.

Everybody knows the Democrats can't win without a large black vote. Kerry cannot count on his own soul appeal to bring it out. And he can't afford to permanently offend the Jacksons. Sooner or later, Jesse Sr. will probably get his invitation to address the convention.

When he does, the stage will be set for a grand, prime-time duel between Jackson and Sharpton. The rhetoric it inspires will be a treat for lovers of political theater and political oratory. The showdown should greatly boost the convention's TV ratings in July.

Whether it helps Kerry in November is a different question.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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