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JEFF JACOBY

The race-baiter in the campaign

LAST WEEK, the Democratic candidates forced Howard Dean to furl the Confederate flag. Now perhaps they'll take on the real race-baiter in their midst: Al Sharpton.

Whatever sins Dean may have committed in his 54 years, he has a long way to go before he can touch Sharpton's repulsive history of racial demagoguery. For instance, did Dean ever go out of his way to share a stage with the likes of Khalid Muhammad -- a gay-bashing, Jew-hating, anti-Catholic racist -- or praise him as "an articulate and courageous brother?" Of course not. But Sharpton did.

Nor did Dean -- or any other candidate -- ever go on the radio to demand that a "white interloper" -- the owner of a Harlem clothing store -- be forced out of business, or whip up a racial protest that ended with seven people dead in a horrific arson attack. But Sharpton did.

And none of the candidates ever led a vitriolic campaign to vilify the young white woman raped and viciously beaten in the Central Park "wilding" case in 1989 -- a campaign in which demonstrators chanted her name in public when most of the media refused to print it and accused her boyfriend of being the real assailant. But Sharpton did.

The continuing scandal of the 2004 presidential campaign is the reluctance of virtually the entire political establishment -- the candidates, their campaigns, and the media -- to say anything about Sharpton's noxious history. To this day, President Bush gets criticized for his February 2000 visit to Bob Jones University, which at the time banned interracial dating. Dean was pilloried for saying that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." In the recent Mississippi governor's race, Republican Haley Barbour was blasted for allowing his picture to appear on the home page of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.

But Sharpton, whose resume is more repugnant than all of them combined, draws nary a rebuke.

It is as if David Duke were running for president and the leading figures in politics and the press decided not to make an issue of the fact that he had been an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Is it even remotely conceivable that Duke would be regarded as just another candidate, let alone a candidate qualified to criticize the racial failings of others? Yet there was Sharpton at the CNN debate in Boston last week, lecturing Dean on "brotherhood" and quoting Martin Luther King.

"You're not a bigot," he said, "but you appear to be too arrogant to say `I'm wrong.' " This from the slanderer who to this day refuses to apologize for his role in the contemptible Tawana Brawley hoax, and for his poisonous libel of an innocent man.

That man was Steven Pagones. In 1988, he was an assistant district attorney in the upstate New York county where Brawley claimed she had been abducted. Her story -- that six white men had raped her over four days -- was vivid, shocking, and, it turned out, entirely fictitious. But Sharpton swore it was true, and vehemently accused Pagones of being one of the rapists.

"If we're lying, sue us," he taunted, "so we can go into court with you and prove you did it."

The gutsy Pagones did just that. He sued Sharpton (and two of his associates) for defamation. In 1998 he was completely vindicated; the jury awarded $345,000 in damages.

But Sharpton, who rebukes Dean for being "too arrogant to say `I'm wrong,' " has never asked Pagones's pardon for his repellent slander. He is unrepentant about having incited the Brawley hoax. Indeed, he doesn't admit that it was a hoax. When Tim Russert urged him on "Meet the Press" to apologize for his role in the ugly affair, Sharpton replied: "I think all of us need to take women's claims more seriously." Russert pressed him a few times, finally asking again: "No apology for Tawana Brawley?" Replied Sharpton: "No apology for standing up for civil rights."

Note well that last. If Sharpton can get away with shielding even his most irresponsible statements behind the cloak of "civil rights," then no Democrat will be able to criticize him -- on anything -- without risking ending up on the wrong side of the party's most freighted issue. By running for president, Peter Beinart perceptively noted in The New Republic, Sharpton is effectively asking the Democratic Party to bless the proposition that civil rights is whatever he says it is.

The other Democratic candidates should be deeply wary of the Sharpton trap. Instead they are walking into it. They treat him as a legitimate presidential aspirant. They never mention, let alone condemn, his odious record. At times they even follow his lead, as they did in the Boston debate, when Sharpton led the attack on Dean.

There should be no room in American politics for a race-baiting charlatan of any color. Honorable Democrats ought to be able to look Sharpton in the eye and say so. Their failure to do so is a moral and political disgrace.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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