POLITICS

Gingrich flunks the Al Sharpton test

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

Al Sharpton stands in a class by himself when it comes to despicable public figures. Sharpton isn’t just a standard issue liberal, but a long-time Jew hater who has a history of inciting violence. His words and deeds have not only shattered countless lives, but have resulted in multiple deaths. In a just world, Sharpton would be viewed as being at least as politically toxic as David Duke. Yet despite his ugly past, Sharpton has emerged as an influential political figure with his own television show on MSNBC. A big part of the reason why he’s been able to persevere is that other media and political figures confer legitimacy on him. One of those people is Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

In 2009, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton went on a nationwide tour together, from the White House to multiple cities, to promote education reforms also being pushed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In one video from the tour, Gingrich said, “I really appreciate the leadership Rev. Sharpton is showing all across America.” Just last month, Gingrich called into Sharpton’s TV show to wish him a happy birthday and shower him with praise. “I had such a great time going around America with you” to push education reform, Gingrich told Sharpton. “I will never forget it for the rest of my life. You were tremendous on those trips… I watched you speak up with courage and with toughness on behalf of children in a way that all my life I will remember and I will honor you for the way you were willing to take on interests on behalf of children."

You may be wondering, what’s so wrong with two people who disagree ideologically about most things coming together for the benefit of children? The problem with such a question is that it implies the only thing objectionable about Sharpton is his ideology. Associating with Sharpton isn’t like forming a temporary alliance with a run of the mill liberal – say Russ Feingold or Rachel Maddow. It’s an insult to the memory of Sharpton’s victims. Unfortunately, due to the efforts of people like Gingrich to legitimize Sharpton over the years, a lot of his troubled past has gone down the memory hole. So it’s worth taking a moment to remember some of Sharpton’s vile actions.

Sharpton first became a major public figure during the 1987 Tawana Brawley case, in which he claimed the black teenage girl had been abducted and raped by a white gang that included an assistant district attorney in Dutchess County, Steven Pagones. In numerous media appearances Sharpton pointed the finger at Pagones and declared a racist cover-up by law enforcement – with zero evidence to support his claims. In 1988, a grand jury cleared Pagones of any wrongdoing, finding that the alleged incident never even happened. But the damage was already done. Pagones’s career as a prosecutor was over, he and his family were under constant death threats and his marriage eventually broke up under the resulting stresses. In 1998, Pagones won a defamation suit against Sharpton, but Sharpton refused to pay the $65,000 in damages owed, claiming he didn’t have the money. After nearly three years of foot dragging, Sharpton supporters paid the debt on his behalf, but he has never apologized to Pagones.

In July 1991, a controversy erupted when Leonard Jeffries, a professor at New York’s City College gave a speech blasting “rich Jews” for financing the slave trade and for controlling Hollywood so they could “put together a system of destruction for Black people.”

Sharpton rushed to defend Jeffries, and in the middle of the swirling controversy, declared, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”

A day after Sharpton made that comment, in August 1991, a Jewish driver accidently ran over a 7-year old black boy named Gavin Cato in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and an anti-Semitic riot broke out in which Jewish rabbinical scholar Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed to death. Instead of calling for calm, Sharpton incited the rioters, leading marches in the streets that included chants of “No Justice, No Peace!” and “Kill the Jews!” At a funeral for the boy who had been run over, Sharpton said, “The world will tell us he was killed by accident. Yes, it was a social accident. … It’s an accident to allow an apartheid ambulance service in the middle of Crown Heights. … Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here in Crown Heights.” For those unfamiliar, “diamond merchants” was a thinly-veiled reference to Jewish jewelers.

After an investigation, no indictment was made of the driver who had accidently run over Cato, and he left for Israel. Sharpton flew there in an attempt to “hunt down” the driver and hand him a civil law suit. According to the Daily News, at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, a woman spotted Sharpton and shouted, “Go to hell!” Sharpton yelled back: "I am in hell already. I am in Israel."

About four years after the Crown Heights affair, in 1995, Al Sharpton through his National Action Network, injected himself in a landlord-tenant dispute in Harlem, which soon turned deadly. As recounted in Fred Siegel’s book Prince of the City, a black Pentecostal church raised the rent of its Jewish tenant, who owned the store Freddy’s Fashion Mart, so the Jewish owner in turn raised the rent on his black sub-tenant, who ran a record store. Sharpton immediately saw an opening for racial demagoguery, and went on radio, declaring, “We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so that some white interloper can expand his business on 125th Street.” His underling, Morris Powell, vowed, “This street will burn. We are going to see to it that this cracker suffers.”

Protesters led by Sharpton’s National Action Network picketed outside the store day after day, referring to Jews as “bloodsuckers” and threatening, “We’re going to burn and loot the Jews.” The demonstrators also struck matches and threw them into the store’s doorway. Two months into the protest, one of the demonstrators stormed into the store armed with a gun, and burned the place to the ground, killing seven people, and shooting himself.

Any other public figure would have been dismissed from polite company after any one of these incidents, but Sharpton has remained resilient.

“He’s been the beneficiary of his cleverness, his entertainment value and his ability to invoke the racial double standard,” Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in a phone interview. “He’s been allowed to play by his own rules.”

Siegel explained, “It’s not as if there’s no pattern from Tawana Brawley, the Gavin Cato funeral remarks, and Freddy’s Fashion Mart. But they are ignored. The dots are erased.”

He attributes this, in part, to the media’s insistence on referring to him a “civil rights activist,” which has a positive connotation.

During the late 1990s, Sharpton’s usefulness to those who wanted to bring down Rudy Giuliani led them to overlook his troubled past. In 2001, by trumping up racial resentment against Democratic mayoral candidate Mark Green, Sharpton helped get Michael Bloomberg elected. And while Giuliani refused to ever meet with Sharpton, Bloomberg immediately fostered a cozy relationship with him.

“You buy Sharpton off because Sharpton can take you down,” Siegel said.

Gingrich’s outreach to Sharpton came in 2009, during a period when some Republicans were worried about being seen as too partisan after a string of Democratic victories. A year earlier, Gingrich had recorded a climate change ad with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – and he would go on to endorse liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in a Congressional race in 2009 over the conservative candidate.

But Gingrich’s embrace of Sharpton is especially worthy of condemnation, because it perpetuates the idea that the vile anti-Semite who has a history of inciting violence, is a mainstream figure.

Siegel said he once approached Gingrich at a Republican dinner to ask him why he was working with Sharpton, despite his ugly past, to promote education reforms that had proven “fraudulent” in Bloomberg’s New York due to artificially inflated test scores and high school graduation rates. A heated discussion ensued, Siegel recalls, but Gingrich was too stubborn to listen. “He simply couldn’t hear,” Siegel said. “He said people have complicated histories.”

To be clear, this isn’t guilt by association. Nobody is suggesting that by embracing Sharpton, Gingrich’s agrees with him. But it also is indicative of a serious lack of judgment. If Gingrich doesn’t know about Sharpton’s past – which is inconceivable – that’s bad enough. But if he intentionally ignored Sharpton’s history, it’s an absolute disgrace. When a prominent Republican such as Gingrich cozies up to Sharpton, it only helps to promote the image that he’s a reasonable figure, and it makes it easier for others to forget his troubled past.

Here’s the video of the Gingrich’s birthday greeting to Sharpton.

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