Reverend Norris's Big Mouth

After a long-awaited showdown with Hillary Clinton, an ally of Al Sharpton triggers a vicious debate about guilt by association

Innis and his son, Niger, fired back, with the elder Innis referring to Koch as "a political prostitute, palling around with a known political gigolo, [Congressman] Charlie Rangel [who is] pork-chopping for Al Sharpton!" Consider this exchange with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on last Friday's Hannity & Colmes show on the Fox News Channel:

Roy Innis: Well, Sean, first of all, there is absolutely no moral equivalent between this person, Sharpton board member, making some obscene remark, with obscene implications, and Joerg Haider, the leader of the second largest party in Austria, coming to the CORE dinner, especially after . . .

Hannity: Are those charges true about Mr. Haider?

Roy Innis: No, its not true. It's not true at all, and I can tell you why it's not true. First of all, I challenged Haider before a panel of blacks, Jews, whites, Christians, journalists, a broad cross-spectrum of people [at] the Marriott Hotel on November 4. He denounced all Nazi association or sentiments. . . .

Niger Innis: Look, the fact of the matter is, our dais is made up of over 80 people. We had the Israeli ambassador sitting there. We had the former New York regional director of the ADL. For the fact of that matter, I talked with a couple of friends over at the ADL a couple of days ago, who told me that Joerg Haider is not an anti-Semite. He's not a Nazi.

Hannity: It's a lie.

Roy Innis: He's an extremist. They believe he's extremist. They don't particularly like him, but they do not consider him to be a Nazi. . . . And this guy, Charles Norris, sits on Al Sharpton's board right now!

Young Innis maintained that Koch had declined an invitation to confront Haider at the November 4 meeting. "Yeah, we invited Ed Koch," he said. "Ed Koch said, 'I'm sorry, I can't make it, but the next time you guys invite me to something, I'll be there.' "

But Ed Koch never dines with alleged Nazi sympathizers.

At the National Action Network, some of Al Sharpton's lieutenants were relieved that Norris's comments had not evoked a stronger response from the First Lady. They had feared that Mrs. Clinton, in her quest for votes, would make the same mistake her husband made. In 1992, while addressing Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, presidential candidate Bill Clinton rebuked rapper Sister Souljah, who had been quoted in a Washington Post interview as saying, ". . . if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Clinton said that if the words black and white had been reversed, "you might think David Duke was giving that speech." One news analysis at the time concluded that Clinton's attack "served to portray him as opposed to both racial prejudice and the harsh brand of militant rhetoric that chills middle-class suburbanites." Clinton apologized after Jackson told reporters the former Arkansas governor used "very bad judgment" in attacking Souljah before his group.

Mrs. Clinton, an insider points out, did not hold Sharpton responsible for Reverend Norris's comments and refused to pander to Sharpton's critics. "How Hillary treated Reverend Sharpton is a lot better than how Bill treated Jesse," the source argues. "What would have been devastating is if Hillary had attacked Sharpton: 'You know, Al, you shouldn't have had somebody like that there.' Some of us felt that Norris gave Reverend Sharpton an opportunity to look good in his finest hour—he denounced bigotry and anti-Semitism. So in the Sharpton camp we're thinking, 'Some tremendous victory!' "

For several months since his condemnation of Hillary Clinton for bypassing key black neighborhoods during her so-called listening tour, Al Sharpton had been anticipating a political victory. "They said it wouldn't happen," he told the parents of Amadou Diallo, the Reverend Calvin Marshall, and a Voice reporter who had joined him in his office to await Mrs. Clinton's arrival.

Sharpton appeared to be nervous. He sprang to his feet when the phone rang, screened calls, and consulted with Michael Hardy, his attorney and confidant, who acted as a buffer that day between the reverend and scores of dignitaries coming out of the cold, clamoring for a seat in his House of Justice.

At the podium, Sharpton moderated as usual. Things moved along smoothly until the Secret Service signaled to Hardy that Mrs. Clinton was in front of the building and Sharpton should come out to greet her. "We were all thinking, 'What could possibly go wrong?' " Hardy says. Before departing, Sharpton told Hardy to ask Reverend Norris, who was on the dais, to take over. He also instructed Hardy to caution Norris "to keep it spiritual. Stay away from politics. Keep it on King."

Hardy whispered the directives in Norris's ear. Norris seemed to be doing okay until he had to stretch his remarks because of a delay in getting Mrs. Clinton into the building.

Hardy recalls, "I was clearing the area because the Secret Service were saying, 'Until she takes the stage, nobody can be sitting behind her.' In my other ear, I heard Norris talking. I heard him say, 'Jew.' Then I heard Jesus. I didn't hear the context. So I didn't know if it was positive or negative, but then I kind of saw people looking kind of weird."

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