Jewish World Review July 26, 2002 /17 Menachem-Av, 5762

Stanley Crouch

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Sharpton just can't get off the high wire | Over the last few days, we have heard the Rev. Al Sharpton's outraged cries of innocence and his $1 billion suit against HBO for airing a 1983 FBI tape during an episode of "Real Sports."

On the tape, Sharpton talks about a cocaine deal with an undercover agent presenting himself as a big-time drug dealer.

This minor mess proves how fast and how often Sharpton is able to surprise us. The very velocity with which he moves back and forth from buffoon to wily and insightful rabble-rouser - what he calls "activist" - must spin the heads of those who love him as well as those who hate him.

His followers believe Sharpton is innocent of everything other than being what the media call him - "black leader." They will tell you the only reason HBO aired the tape is that there is a conspiracy to destroy black leadership.

Their assumption is that Sharpton so threatens the whites in power that the FBI leaked the tape to thwart his chances when he runs for President. Such followers also believe that Tawana Brawley was kidnapped and raped.

Black nationalists were through with Sharpton after Newsday broke a story more than 10 years ago in which he was identified as one who, after being confronted with the cocaine-deal tape, wore a wire for the FBI for five years. That allegation was repeated on HBO.

Many whites define Sharpton as a racial opportunist, a borderline or full-fledged anti-Semite who under no circumstances can be trusted. In their eyes, he will never live down the Brawley hoax.

I find Sharpton an amazing combination of traits - good, bad and middling.

He can be everything his detractors say about him, but I think his troubles come from something else.

As one black woman said to me, "He had the chance to show himself as a serious leader, but he didn't. He kept the media flame going. That's always his problem. He never rises above his situation. There was nothing on the tape. There was little to be said. But he's turning it into an issue."

She is right. There is no real evidence of anything significant in the HBO story. Sharpton seemed nervous and far from confident while talking with the undercover FBI agent. To me, he seemed to be acting, putting up a front. There was also a comical flavor added by his wearing a cowboy hat and carrying an unlit cigar. He seemed to be in costume.

Yet when he is questioned in the "Real Sports" documentary, Sharpton goes back and forth about the tape and says that one of the reasons he is considering running for President is the abuse of power that goes on. Sharpton also claims that there is more tape that wasn't played that would exonerate him. Ergo, a plot.

Those are the elements of a Sharpton performance. He takes the high ground too infrequently - and too frequently proves himself addicted to standing before TV cameras and microphones. Even the idea of backing away and letting things settle down appears beyond him.

His inflated rhetoric and willingness to appeal to the true believers who see everything in terms of black victims and white conspirators keep the prize of serious recognition beyond him.

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JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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