There is an expression sometimes used in sports when the team that is trailing in the game manages to stay within arm’s length of its opponent, never allowing the score to get out of reach, and thereby preserving the chance, however slim, that the tide can still be turned. Sportscasters call it “hanging around.”
The phrase came to mind when Saturday Night Live recently announced its host for its December 6th broadcast — Al Sharpton. For the Reverend, it represents another victory in his long-running transformation from urban menace to mainstream political candidate. With the invite from SNL, Sharpton’s rehabilitation, at least in New York City, can now be considered complete. It remains to be seen how it will play nationally.
Sharpton has come a long way since 1987, when he rose to fame by perpetrating one of the most searing racial hoaxes ever devised in New York, the Tawana Brawley case. Though Sharpton has been ordered to pay damages for his role in defaming an innocent man and duping an entire city, he has never admitted any wrongdoing. For one thing, he’s been much too busy. Emerging unscathed from the Brawley fiasco, Sharpton moved on to all-purpose racial provocation. He led racially divisive boycotts, helped to stoke racial flames after the Crown Heights riots of 1991, and instigated a notorious episode that ended with the arson of a Jewish retail establishment and the deaths of eight people. (A good recap of Sharpton’s various exploits can be found here.)
Sixteen years after the Brawley case, Sharpton is increasingly regarded as a lovable rogue on the Democratic primary circuit, always ready with a cute one-liner, comfortably settling into the role of “idealist,” of all things. But the change in image was not accomplished through a change in behavior. Over the years, Sharpton has traded in his warm-up suits for a more corporate look, dropped some pounds, and toned down his pompadour, but beyond that he is the same toxic messenger of racial division.
How did such a notorious demagogue become respectable? One could go on about racial double standards — Trent Lott never led street mobs on missions of racial vengeance, but you won’t see him as a prime-time host anytime soon — and this is true as far as it goes. But beyond race, Sharpton’s journey to the middle of the road is also illustrative of the way American celebrity culture bestows respect, more often than not, on just about anyone with the gift of endurance. If you can hang around long enough and give as good as you take, people start to enjoy your company and forget your transgressions, assuming they were even offended by them in the first place.
Celebrity rehabilitation is a special kind of American art, but it rarely unfolds predictably. Sharpton now belongs to the political class, for whom the rules tend to be fairly clear. In today’s climate, the key for political figures is to remain on their feet long enough for the onslaught to pass. Richard Nixon is everyone’s uber example of political rehab, but his hanging around was only possible as an ex-president, and only after an extended exile. Today redemption comes much more quickly. Bill Clinton skipped right over the exile period and transitioned seamlessly from the scandal of impeachment to the riches of the speaking circuit. Clinton is a special case, though — he never really had to be rehabilitated because, as Sidney Blumenthal could tell you, he never really did anything wrong in the first place. Others in politics still have to walk a more humble road.
For example: few remember it now, but John McCain’s career was thought to be all but over in the late 1980s with the Keating Five scandal. McCain’s remedy was twofold: first, he rode out the storm and endured, the paramount requirement. Second, he employed the time-honored political trick of campaigning against the very offense he committed. Sure enough, by 2000, McCain’s campaign finance reform message made him the darling of idealists everywhere. The guiding principle for weathering political scandals seems to be: “That which does not kill me will eventually earn me elder statesman status.”
Among other public figures, from media to showbiz, the rules are less clear, the results more unpredictable. For example, Mark Fuhrman now does legal analysis on Fox News, proving that a white man who is deemed racially insensitive can still find his way back into polite company. Who would have thought that Fuhrman could have emerged from his post-O.J. identity as Racist Cop Incarnate? And yet, like Sharpton, he seems to have done little to earn these good graces other than — you guessed it — hung around.
On the other hand, there is the mysterious case of Tonya Harding, another tabloid legend from the O.J. era. She seemed marked for redemptive stardom. But except for a brief turn on Fox’s typically high-minded and surprisingly short-lived Celebrity Boxing, she is a no-show on the rehabilitation circuit. She should have been forgiven for kneecapping Nancy Kerrigan by now (after all, she had a rough upbringing), and by rights should be well into a lucrative career as an “analyst” of something or other. Why Fuhrman succeeded and she failed is anyone’s guess.
It will be interesting to see what becomes of Scott Peterson if he is acquitted in his murder trial. He would seem destined for analyst duties on Fox. Likewise, one assumes Jayson Blair will be heard from reasonably soon as a “media analyst,” though probably not on Fox. Stephen Glass rode his plagiarism all the way to a book and feature film deal. But whenever you think you have it figured out, a surprise comes along. The one constant is the importance of hanging around.
The key is to do something, anything — it doesn’t matter whether it is craven or heroic, a grand gesture or a passing sneer. Save a drowning child, rescue an American private, start a race riot, fabricate news stories, kill your wife — just make sure it’s televised. Climb into the frame and take your best shot. If you meet with approval, ride the wave. If you are condemned, ride out the storm. As long as you have an audience, you have a chance. Celebrity is what counts — all other factors are wild cards, as Al Sharpton can tell you.
Live from New York…a host who will never have to say he’s sorry.