Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tawana Brawley

Sharpton, Issa and Living Down the Past

The big kerfuffle of the day concerns the attack on Representative Darrell Issa by presidential political advisor David Plouffe. In order to deflect attention away from Issa’s over-the-top, if accurate claim yesterday that White House press spokesman Jay Carney was a “paid liar” for his well-documented diversions from the truth about Benghazi as well as shifting stories on press snooping and the IRS scandal, Plouffe said this about the chair of the House Oversight Committee on Twitter:

Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today.

The reference is to a series of charges leveled at Issa in his youth, all of which date back to incidents in the 1970s and early 1980s, and none of which were ever successfully prosecuted. A look at the New Yorker profile about Issa where Plouffe got his material makes it seem as if Issa had a rather tumultuous youth even if he is a self-made millionaire who seems to be the model for today’s high-tech entrepreneurs.

But if the several-decades-old skeletons in Issa’s closet are fair game for political commentary, one has to wonder why it is that a discussion of the ethics and probity of one of MSNBC’s current political commentators has been considered a breach of etiquette for most liberals and Democrats.

I refer, of course, to the record of MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, who began as a street-smart racial hustler and is now a respected former presidential candidate and commentator. In the world of MSNBC, Sharpton is not merely just another liberal talking head; he’s the voice of the civil rights movement used in the network’s promotional videos as an avatar of the cause of equality.

But give credit to the New York Times for commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tawana Brawley hoax in an online documentary that pays special attention to the role of Sharpton in what was one of the most outrageous instances of public lying in memory.

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The big kerfuffle of the day concerns the attack on Representative Darrell Issa by presidential political advisor David Plouffe. In order to deflect attention away from Issa’s over-the-top, if accurate claim yesterday that White House press spokesman Jay Carney was a “paid liar” for his well-documented diversions from the truth about Benghazi as well as shifting stories on press snooping and the IRS scandal, Plouffe said this about the chair of the House Oversight Committee on Twitter:

Strong words from Mr Grand Theft Auto and suspected arsonist/insurance swindler. And loose ethically today.

The reference is to a series of charges leveled at Issa in his youth, all of which date back to incidents in the 1970s and early 1980s, and none of which were ever successfully prosecuted. A look at the New Yorker profile about Issa where Plouffe got his material makes it seem as if Issa had a rather tumultuous youth even if he is a self-made millionaire who seems to be the model for today’s high-tech entrepreneurs.

But if the several-decades-old skeletons in Issa’s closet are fair game for political commentary, one has to wonder why it is that a discussion of the ethics and probity of one of MSNBC’s current political commentators has been considered a breach of etiquette for most liberals and Democrats.

I refer, of course, to the record of MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, who began as a street-smart racial hustler and is now a respected former presidential candidate and commentator. In the world of MSNBC, Sharpton is not merely just another liberal talking head; he’s the voice of the civil rights movement used in the network’s promotional videos as an avatar of the cause of equality.

But give credit to the New York Times for commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tawana Brawley hoax in an online documentary that pays special attention to the role of Sharpton in what was one of the most outrageous instances of public lying in memory.

While the name Tawana Brawley is still virtually synonymous with false charges of rape and racism, Sharpton’s part in that disgraceful episode has somehow been shoved down the memory hole by both the political class and the mainstream media, both of which welcomed Sharpton’s entry into their numbers with open arms in the last decade. Looking at Sharpton today as he preens on MSNBC where he is treated as a distinguished civil rights leader and pundit, it’s as if his voluminous record of race baiting disappeared with all the excess weight he lost in recent years before becoming as slim as his good friend Barack Obama.

Much of that record is rightly re-told in an essay in today’s Daily Beast by Stuart Stevens, who makes clear that the Brawley incident was just one of a series of events in which Sharpton told lies and incited hatred against whites and Jews in the hope of making a name for himself. Sharpton succeeded in that effort despite the fact that, as the Times documentary recounts, he was definitively exposed as a liar, falsely accusing a dead state trooper as well as a local prosecutor of taking part in a racially motivated rape of Brawley.

Sharpton’s tactics before he joined the ranks of distinguished talking heads centered on saying the most absurd lies loudly and as often as he could, confident that no one would or could call him out for his buffoonery. But the Brawley case was a bridge too far even for Sharpton and the two extremist lawyers–Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason–who were his accomplices. Their client’s bizarre story was easily proved to be a fabrication, making their disgusting accusations not merely wrong but malicious and knowingly false as a grand jury investigation as well as a defamation suit against Sharpton proved.

But all these years later, Sharpton is unrepentant about his behavior, merely claiming that he repeated his client’s lies and thought he was telling the truth. Even worse, he still seeks to muddy the waters by claiming “something happened” when he and the rest of the world knows very well that the only thing that happened was that a scared kid told a lie and was exploited by racial hucksters who amplified those lies in order to hype their own reputations.

You can’t entirely blame MSNBC for treating Sharpton as if his past didn’t matter. The national Democratic Party did the same in 2004 when Sharpton ran as a candidate in their presidential primaries. Just as New York politicians feared angering the rabble rouser in his days before the Brawley case damaged his brand, Democrats chose not to raise the question of his past during debates and instead embraced him as part of their party’s big tent. Ever since then, he’s been able to repeat this feat to the point that it is considered bad manners to even mention Brawley, the Crown Heights pogrom where his anti-Semitic comments helped foment a riot or Freddie’s Fashion Mart, where another piece of Sharpton incitement led to a fire that killed seven people.

Let’s remember that whatever you may think about the old stories about Issa, he was never convicted of thing whereas official proceedings in the Brawley case branded Sharpton a reckless and cynical liar. As Stevens writes, MSNBC executives need to watch the Times documentary and then explain to their kids “why everything you’ve tried to teach them about honesty, fair play, and decency is wrong and Al Sharpton is right.”

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