In early 2007, I decided I needed to know what each of the candidates for president stood for and what they were thinking about how to solve the nation's problems. So I toured Washington and met with each of them, which was easy, since almost all of them were in the Senate. Obama was the last meeting, the end of my gauntlet of senators. When I walked into his office, I was struck by the poignancy of the huge picture of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that he had on his wall. I thought it fit, because that was the tradition that had birthed him, the former law school professor-the world of jurisprudence, where Marshall clearly had been a pioneer.
As we talked, I liked Obama's thinking, his approach to problem solving, but I wasn't sure if he was strong enough on black issues, which was a common criticism he was hearing at the time in the black community. At the same time, I was getting the red-carpet treatment from the Clintons-Bill was speaking at the NAN convention, Hillary at the NAN women's luncheon.
Actually, we had every one of the Democratic candidates speak at the NAN convention that year. I was quite the popular guy, with the suitors lined up to punch my dance card. But I was not about to let it go to my head; I knew it was just part of the political game, the methodical courting of each constituent group that you must do when you run for president, like an accountant tallying numbers in a ledger.
At that point, I still hadn't made up my mind which candidate I would support. I was leaning toward Hillary, but I kind of liked Obama. I got a call one day from Charlie King, who was the acting executive director of NAN at the time and who was a longtime Democratic Party operative in New York State. King told me that President Clinton was flying home to Chappaqua and wanted to meet with me at the house there. I traveled up to Chappaqua and met with the former president for about an hour. He persuasively laid out all the reasons I should go with his wife. It was a convincing presentation, and I was almost there, right on the verge of giving Hillary the nod. But on the drive back to Manhattan, one of my associates who was in the car with me managed to say something that changed my perspective a bit. First, he asked me, "Have you decided what you're going to do-Clinton or Obama?"
"I don't know," I answered truthfully. "I'm kind of going back and forth on it."
Obama had also been laying on the charm. He had come up to New York and asked if he could take me out to dinner. He came by the House of Justice in Harlem, already accompanied by the Secret Service, and scooped me up. We went to Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, with the national media in tow and making a big deal about him having soul food in Harlem.
"I remember when all the black leaders went against you in '04," my associate reminded me. "I guess it didn't hurt them."
That comment stayed with me for a minute. I went up into the Grand Havana Room, a private club where I like to unwind and smoke cigars several evenings a week, and I thought some more about it, how the New York leadership didn't feel the need to rally around me when I ran; this idea of regional loyalties didn't seem to apply for me. My decision had been made. I went into a private area of the club, and I called Obama.
"I met today with President Clinton," I told him.
"Yeah, yeah, I know you have to work on policy with her," he said. "All I ask is, if you can't support me, try not to hurt me."
"Nah, I think I'm going to support you."
"Huh?" he said, clearly shocked. "I never asked you to do that."
"No, you didn't," I said. "In my own way, I'm going to go out there and support you. I don't even know if you can win. Probably, tonight, I don't think you can win. But it won't be because I was in the way. I won't do to you what a lot of folks did to me."
Clearly, he was very thankful-and surprised.
A few weeks passed, and I got a call from Obama. They were having a black forum focusing on urban affairs in Iowa, the location of the first Democratic primary/caucus. They had asked me to be the keynote speaker. Obama said he had to go because all the other candidates were going. He wanted to know how we could pull it off without bumping heads, because our approaches to the black agenda would be different and might even at times be in conflict. He didn't want to sound as if he was in opposition to anything I might say, but at the same time, he didn't want to hurt his campaign.
"How do we do this?" he asked me.
"Let me think about it and get back to you," I said. I later found out there had been debate among his staff about how to handle Iowa and Sharpton. He had decided to call me directly, rather than having a surrogate call me, which I appreciated. After a couple of days of deliberation, I called him back on his cell phone.
"I thought about how we can do this," I said.
"OK, what do you think we should do?" he asked.
"I'm not going," I said.
"What do you mean, you're not going? I didn't ask you not to go."
"There's no way I can go and not say things that they would try to use against you, because I'm going to be Al Sharpton. But if I don't go, there won't be any potential conflict-and they might not even have it. So I'm not going."
"Wow," he said. "You know, it's rare to meet people who can see things are bigger than them."
"Hey, all of us in public life got ego," I said. "But all of us should remember there are things bigger than us. So I'm out."
Rev. Al Sharpton's new book, the Rejected Stone, comes out October 8.
RSVP to attend the book signing at noon on October 8 in New York City at the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue between 45th and 46th streets.