Al Sharpton at Middlebury

I went to see Al Sharpton speak at Middlebury.  I posted the following first impressions on my blog and will follow up tomorrow.

I came to Mead Chapel on the campus of Middlebury College to seek common ground with the nation’s leading civil rights figure. Afterall, this was the same chapel where I had attended a symposium of religious scholars of many faiths, including the Dalai Lama, as a freshman some 25 years ago. Middlebury was then a breeding ground for common ground.

I must say it was the first time I have ever left that chapel — or any chapel — emptier than when I arrived. Reverend Al’s recitation of his resume and his I-told-you-so recollections of being the first to say this and first to do that reminded me not at all of Reverend King. I paid no admission and still felt cheated. The eager, star-struck students paid over $40,000 for the privilege. (I think $15,000 in my day for the Dalai Lama was a far better bargain. Big hitter, the Lama. Not so much Al.)

First candidate to condemn the war. First on the scene in Jena. Al is to the civil rights movement what ambulance chasing lawyers are to grisly accidents. It’s important to be first. As if envy for Obama had created such a hole in his life that he had to remind us of all his firsts.

I had been promised an interview by the associate director of public affairs. But I was told that the Reverend had a “car waiting.” Well, I had a pickup truck waiting, probably the only one on campus, and it could still be waiting after a three minute Q&A. Sorry. No luck at all with the haughty public relations operation of the college I once so adored.

“But, your assistant said the contract Al signed provided for fifteen minutes for interviews?”

“Who said that? There’s no contr…”

What’s that? No contr…? Did you catch yourself in an untruth? And just what did the College pay for that delightful hour of Al? Yeah, the fact is that not all African-Americans want to come to Middlebury College all that much. Some won’t come without getting paid. And the spinmasters at Club Midd don’t want that to get out.

I had no intention of the promised interview being a debate, but rather a focus on issues of healing, such as Obama’s bipartisanship, and issues of commonality, such as school choice. No, I would never debate with the nation’s leading expert on hypocrisy, sarcasm, and sleeze. Not with a man who can defend Jeremiah Wright, condemn Don Imus, and chew up Greta van Susteren in the process. Certainly not with a man who can rail against Bush going after the wrong perpetrator of the War on Terror and yet has no problem punishing white children of today, wanting to go to college, for the sins of slaveowners 150 years ago.

I wanted the interview because there was a missing story. Not Tawana Brawley. No, far more conspicuous and surprising in his absense from the chapel was Barack Obama. The evening wasn’t about Obama. It wasn’t about our nation. It wasn’t about civil rights. It certainly wasn’t about Dr. King. It was all about Al.

But I learned something, while gazing around the chapel during a Sharpton rant. I already knew that Obama had achieved more in four years of national politics than Sharpton had in 40 years of activism. But here’s what else I learned: Middlebury’s audiences are no more diverse than they were when the College began trying to cram diversity up our cold college butts 25 years ago. Primarily because Middlebury is so gosh darned cold. It was as white as any audience you’d encounter anywhere in Vermont. And that’s really the lesson of why Sharpton will never be Obama and Middlebury will never be Harvard. They try too hard.