The instant that Caroline Kennedy faintly hinted that she was interested in Hillary Clinton's possibly soon vacant senate seat she got pounded. Kennedy was take your pick: just an inexperienced part time education consultant; an Obama shoulder rubber; a Park Avenue dilettante; her senate bid was nothing more than a crass and naked grab to cash in her JFK blood tie. The point in the attacks was that she was a political novice using her famed name to vault over a pack of far more worthy, seasoned, and political dues paying elected officials to get the seat. None of the other presumed more deserving candidates would need OJT in the senate seat. Kennedy would.
The attacks, rightly or wrongly, stung, and Kennedy quickly looked around the political landscape to find the right someone to burnish her admittedly paper thin political resume. The someone she latched onto was the Reverend Al Sharpton. This brought a fresh volley of criticism of Kennedy for picking Sharpton. He is to some critics the wrong someone to give her the needed political luster.
He's still widely regarded as an ego driven, media hogging race baiting agitator and opportunist who will jump on any cause to get some TV face time. Some news blogs took giddy delight in skewering Sharpton for emailing a public statement puffing himself up as so important that Kennedy would personally call him and ask for a meeting presumably to talk politics and her candidacy. There were more guffaws when Sharpton cracked that his meal jaunt with Obama during the presidential campaign somehow helped him win the White House. Obama dined with him at Sylvia's, the famed black restaurant spot in Harlem.
The personal hits on Sharpton are nothing more than the ritual anti-Sharpton name calling stuff. They tell nothing about why a Kennedy met and dined with Sharpton at Sylvia's let alone what she felt Sharpton could do to help her nab Clinton's seat.
This is a hard pill for some to swallow but Sharpton has been a pathway for a lot of Democrats and would-be Democratic politicians to go through for years to get and stay on the political radar scope. That's in part because of who many perceive Sharpton to be and the influence that he has on the street with many blacks, Latinos, the poor and community activists. This is a constituency that no liberal or moderate Democrat can afford to ignore or alienate.
In other part Sharpton's appeal is his media pull and image. The lines between the two are hopelessly blurred. A sound bite, photo-op, rock star and Hollywood celebrity allure can mean as much if not more in determining a candidate's political fate than what they have to say about global warming, the deficit, the Iraq war, campaign reform, or the Wall Street meltdown.
Sharpton is instant media and image. Kennedy's meal with him at Sylvia's was a paparazzi delight. The bank of TV cameras and photographers elbowing each other to get a quote, quip, and shots of Kennedy and Sharpton coming, going and sitting inside Sylvia's was the best proof of that.
This is not to say that Sharpton is the consummate political king or queen maker. Kennedy will still have to sell herself. She'll have to kiss the obligatory rings of the political and financial deal makers, spell out to voters what her vision and program is, and how she'll arm twist Congress and the Obama administration to help New York dig out of its crushing revenue shortfall. Sharpton can't help her there. She's on her own. This is the true test of whether her senate talk is just a whimsical fling, or if she really wants it and has the right stuff to handle the job.
This is the only way that she can stand the inexperience rap against her on its head and maybe even in a quirky way turn that into an asset. Legions of voters hold their nose in disgust at the sex, corruption and deal making antics of career politicians. Oddly, in between the photo ops and food munching Sharpton didn't actually say that Kennedy's the one. He touted her as an attorney and praised her for her work on behalf of children. That hardly qualifies her for the seat.
But that didn't much matter in the glare of the cameras. A beaming Kennedy standing before the bank of TV cameras with Sharpton in tow was a win win for both. It showed for the moment at least that the man that many love and many more love to hate is in her camp. It was a win win for Sharpton in that it showed that he was important enough for her to want him in her camp.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).
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