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NBC Meet the Press Transcript

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HEADLINE: Reverend Al Sharpton discusses 2004 presidential race

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Reverend Al Sharpton, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

REV. AL SHARPTON: Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT: You are definitely going to run for president?

REV. SHARPTON: On January 21, I will be filing the exploratory committee and I intend, early spring, to make a formal announcement to run.

MR. RUSSERT: But no doubt, full speed ahead?

REV. SHARPTON: We're moving full speed ahead.

MR. RUSSERT: Have you been raising money before filing the campaign exploratory committee.

REV. SHARPTON: No, we're not in fund-raising mode as of yet. I think one of the things that we've been doing more than any of the potential candidates is really moving around the country talking to people. I think that part of what's wrong with politics today is that we are too poll driven rather than pulse driven, really talking, really trying to deal with the people that I think are the majority of the country that have been marginalized, ignored in the interest really unattended to, as well as not spoken on behalf of. And I think that we spend a lot more time on that. As we will continue this exploratory process now formally toward a formal announcement, we are more concerned about that. The money, I think, helps to bring the message, but I think that to be preoccupied with money rather than message and direction of the country is what is wrong with politics today.

MR. RUSSERT: In one sentence, why should Al Sharpton be president of the United States?

REV. SHARPTON: Because the United States today sits in a global village. The world, because of technology and communication, is one village. And I, more than anyone talking about running, understands the village and I feel represents the priorities that the village must deal with in order to survive as a planet.

MR. RUSSERT: The Los Angeles Times went out and talked to members of the Democratic National Committee about you and other candidates. They came back with this: A favorable impression, 16; unfavorable, 66 percent. Why are you such a polarizing figure?

REV. SHARPTON: Well, again, your question and your ending to your question I don't agree with. The DNC members are part of the establishment of the Democratic Party that I'm questioning. I think that clearly if I'm saying that as many of them represent an era and a time that I don't think any longer helps to benefit most Americans, clearly they would disagree with me. That doesn't make you polarizing. That means that I disagree with a lot of the leadership, particularly of the Democratic Leadership Council that has been, in my opinion, imitation Republicans, and clearly they disagree with me. Any time you have a new social movement, those that you intend to try and replace would not be favorable toward you.

MR. RUSSERT: But even amongst black Democratic voters, look at this, Joe Lieberman, 24 percent; Sharpton, 16; Gephardt, 10; Edwards 10. Black Democrats prefer a white Jewish Democrat over a black Democrat like Al Sharpton.

REV. SHARPTON: Well, that's according to that poll. First of all, Joe Lieberman ran for vice president in the last election. I think what is more telling by that poll is how you have people that's been sitting in Washington two and three decades, and black voters have such a low opinion of them, if that's what you want to talk about.

I also think what's interesting is if you looked in '84 and '88 when Reverend Jackson ran, polls said Mr. Mondale was going to beat him in many black communities. It didn't happen. So again, I'm not as concerned about polls. I mean, I'm not a pollster; I'm not a pundit. I'm one that believes in dealing with where are we going. We need to make some real fundamental change from the Constitution down in this country. We need to talk about the right to vote, which Americans don't have by Constitution; the right to education, the right to health care. We need to deal with—you just finished talking with Senator Frist, where we're sitting in Washington with a party that is in charge, that is saying, on the one hand, that Mr. Lott, what he said was not representative of the American people, but on the other hand, we are going to continue the same spirit. How? We are going to nominate judges like Pickering. We are going to continue to have equivocation on affirmative action. I think that we've gone from Trent Lott to Lott-light. We have a lot of Lott-light senators that are still sitting in the Senate that are going to make some very fundamental votes that are going to really affect people. I think that's more important to me than some pollster which changes every day.

MR. RUSSERT: You have been critical of the Republican Party, as you just were, but you've also been critical on the Democratic Party. This is what you said last Sunday: "Democratic leadership is treating minority voters like their mistresses. We are good enough to have a little fun with around election time, but we are not good enough to meet mama and daddy."

REV. SHARPTON: I've been very critical of some of the Democratic leadership, and I work along with others—Independents, Armstrong Williams, who's a black Republican, probably the most prolific in the country, and I don't agree on a lot, but talk. The reason I've been critical of the Democrats is because of some Democrats, particularly the Democratic Leadership Conference, is because on the one hand, they say "We need to get and mobilize and galvanize the black vote, the Latino vote." But on the other hand, when it comes to issues that are of concern to those communities, they equivocate. Affirmative action—clearly there has been equivocation; death penalty, where you have the racial disparity on death row, clear equivocation; the military base in Vieques, we have a commitment, the president said they'd be out in March. I want to know if that's going to be a promise kept. The Democrats are not giving real vocal support to that. So I think that it is to me degrading to say "We want your vote, let's turn out in big numbers, 90 percent on Election Day, but we can't stand with you in the light of day." That is a mistress relationship. I think that that has to end and I intend to be part of that in 2004.

MR. RUSSERT: You've run for office three times. In the '92 Senate primary you got 13 percent, '94 Senate primary 26 percent, the mayoral primary in 1997, 32 percent. You've never been elected to office. You endorsed Republican conservative Alfonse D'Amato for Senate in 1986, and this is what you said about Bill Clinton the other day: "Bill Clinton failed to lead the Democratic Party during the midterm elections," Al Sharpton said... "For him to say that the Democrats failed to bring out a message is wrong... He was the messenger, he was the one out there and helped run the campaign along with Terry McAuliffe."

And you said he's not the first black president, he's a beige president. What's your problem with white liberals?

REV. SHARPTON: D'Amato, white conservative; Clinton—I'm trying to find a white liberal you asking me about. My problem is...

MR. RUSSERT: Bill Clinton.

REV. SHARPTON: I don't consider Mr. Clinton—I don't think he considers himself a white liberal.

MR. RUSSERT: You've attacked Mario Cuomo, Pat Moynihan, Bob Abrams, all of them.

REV. SHARPTON: Well, again, do we have a party where we can debate? Do we have a party where we're supposed to be handed the fliers and told to hit the first corner and get the vote out. Of course I attack Mario Cuomo if I disagree with him on budget cuts. Of course I attack Pat Moynihan, as most civil rights leaders did, when he came with his benign neglect philosophy which I don't consider liberal. And of course, Bill Clinton, who was part of the leadership of the DLC, we have disagreed with. I disagree with the welfare reform bill. I disagreed with the omnibus crimes bill.

I don't think that we are required to be in lockstep. That is exactly what I'm talking about, and that is why in 2004 we need to debate affirmative action. We also need to debate this whole tax cut syndrome the Republicans are giving that many of the Democrats supported. So I don't think that to debate and to raise issues, whether one calls himself liberal or conservative, is being divisive. I think it's divisive not to raise issues if they are not working and if you see double unemployment in many communities, to other communities, if you see medical services not being treated and given in an equal way. I think you have a responsibility to speak up.

You know, I think, Mr. Russert, most people confuse quiet with peace. They want to say we want peace but they really want quiet. They want us to just shut up and suffer in silence. I think that's a betrayal of everything America stands for to tell people to shut up, don't raise questions, don't debate.

MR. RUSSERT: But when you endorse a conservative Republican like Al D'Amato rather than a Democratic liberal like Mark Green, people say you're nothing but an opportunist.

REV. SHARPTON: Well, what was the opportunity? First of all, the ministerial group I was part of had endorsed Mr. D'Amato in '86, and we did not feel that he was going to be a conservative Republican, similar to civil rights leaders endorsed Charles Percy, and some have endorsed other Republicans when we had problems in Chicago with Richard Daley when I was growing up in Operation Breadbasket. We said six months later we made a big mistake. In fact, when you quoted I ran in 1992, I ran trying to run against D'Amato. I've been wrong about Republicans. But guess what? I've been wrong about Democrats, too. I've tried to correct those mistakes. I intend to make the ultimate correction in 2004.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the federal budget. A lot of debate about that. It is now $2.1 trillion. Let me show you on the screen how it's divided up. Left side of the screen, net interest—interest that has to be paid—Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, other mandatory entitlement programs are pretty much frozen. You wouldn't touch those, would you?

REV. SHARPTON: No, I would not.

MR. RUSSERT: So what's left is defense at $368 billion and non-defense discretionary, which is Justice Department, Education, Agriculture. Where would you cut the budget?

REV. SHARPTON: Well, first of all, what I would look at...

MR. RUSSERT: Or how you would change it?

REV. SHARPTON: First of all, what I'd look at is how we bring in more to our nation's budget.

MR. RUSSERT: You'd raise taxes?

REV. SHARPTON: No. What I would do is I would not unnecessarily cut taxes. As we see with the Bush tax cut plan, I would not cut taxes for those that are wealthy and I would not ignore the fact that we can create taxpayers by creating more jobs. I'm going to be advocating very strongly Felix Rohatyn's plan, about building an alternative infrastructure revival in this country, which would provide jobs, a $250 billion five-year plan, adding $50 billion a year to the federal deficit, which is the only deficit you can add to, to generate jobs. I think the problem we have is we try to generate taxpayers with a trickle-down philosophy rather than an investment into the people that need the investment, which are working-class people, and which are people every day. So I would first try to generate more of a tax base.

In that context, I would then look at the administrative overcost in various government services. I think that the downsizing of government bureaucracy is something even the Republicans agree with. I don't think you need to cut Medicaid and Medicare and other things if you generate more of a tax base and if you have priorities right. One of the things I disagree with with the Republicans is, yes, we're into deficit spending. They were the ones that popularized balanced budgets. We're into deficit spending, but it's deficit spending with no purpose. If you're going to deficit spend, it ought to be toward a goal that is right, that is moral and will stabilize the country. That goal ought to be to create jobs.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you cut defense spending?

REV. SHARPTON: I would look at—I've seen various reports where a lot of defense spending is buying $300 pieces of furniture in the Pentagon. I would look at what we're spending money on.

MR. RUSSERT: But you don't have a firm number?

REV. SHARPTON: I don't have a firm number at this point, but what I would say is that I would clearly not be engaging in military actions that are going to cost billions, if not a trillion dollars like Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: You would not disarm Saddam Hussein with military action?

REV. SHARPTON: No, I said military action. I, at this point, have not seen the evidence that says it is any way, shape or form necessary for military action and that we have tens of thousands of troops headed over there. I think that when we see the inconsistency between the administration's reaction to North Korea and the reaction to Iraq that it is absolutely, in my judgment, political schizophrenia.

MR. RUSSERT: If Saddam had a nuclear bomb, would you invade to take it away?

REV. SHARPTON: If Saddam had a nuclear bomb, I would still try to use every measure I could, as we are doing in North Korea, to talk and to use our allies and friends to disarm him. I would use military action only as a last alternative. I would protect America. But I don't see how you protect America by, in my judgment, appear to be bent on war no matter what. I don't understand how it makes sense to talk in North Korea, but it doesn't make sense to talk in Iraq which is why I intend to be at the anti-war march in Washington next week.

I think that if someone broke in my house, rather than go at the guy across the street that I think may have a weapon and may do something, I would concentrate on getting the guy that did break in my house, Mr. bin Laden, and I would deal with him. If the police came, saying, "I know the guy over here has a weapon." We're going after the guy we're guessing about, talking to the guy we know about and ignoring the guy that has already attacked us. That does not make sense.

MR. RUSSERT: Of all the current world leaders, who impresses you the most?

REV. SHARPTON: Out of all the current world leaders? Nelson Mandela.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, he's no longer leader of South Africa.

REV. SHARPTON: Oh, I forget. You operate on a premise. You talk about you have to be elected to lead. I thought you said world leaders. I think Mandela's a world leader. The present occupants of offices, that would be difficult for me to say. I would have to think about that.

MR. RUSSERT: This is what you said about Fidel Castro in your book: "I found Castro to be a very reasonable, intelligent man. ... I never met anyone with a more rapid mind. He was brilliant. He was absolutely awesome... [Fidel Castro] is a great leader."

REV. SHARPTON: I did in my book—and thank you for promoting it. I did a chapter on leadership, and I talked about his qualities as a leader. Certainly I disagree with some of his policies. I also praised Winston Churchill, who I considered an imperialist.

MR. RUSSERT: Fidel Castro has hundreds of political prisoners, stifles people's rights.

REV. SHARPTON: Winston Churchill was an imperialist. I said as a leader he had the traits. Ronald Reagan, who I marched against half my life, I said was a great leader in the book. Quote the whole chapter. It's a great book.

MR. RUSSERT: But you think Castro is a good man.

REV. SHARPTON: I think Castro has leadership qualities. Nowhere in your quote I said he was a good man. I know you wouldn't misquote me, Mr. Russert.

MR. RUSSERT: Never. I just showed you the quote on the board.

REV. SHARPTON: Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, every time you're on this program, I'm flooded with e-mails saying every time I talk about your background, they say the following—and I'll show you on the screen—"1987: Supported claims—later discredited—by black teenager Tawana Brawley that she had been gang-raped by white men, including law enforcement agents. He accused Steven Pagones, a white assistant district attorney, of taking part in the rape. Later ordered to pay $65,000 to Mr. Pagones for defaming him."

Then "1993: Plead guilty to failure to file a New York State Tax Return in 1986. Paid $5,000."

"1995: Referred to the Jewish owner of Freddy's Fashion Mart, a Harlem clothing store, as a 'white interloper.' Weeks later, a protester burned the store down. Eight people died."

"2002: Evicted from his Empire State Building office after failing to pay six-months of back rent totaling $40,000."

If a white candidate had that background, do you believe people would take him seriously as a candidate for president?

REV. SHARPTON: I think you've got white cand—with worse backgrounds who...


REV. SHARPTON: Well, I'm not getting into name-calling. But we've had candidates that have had personal indiscretions. Let's look at what we're talking about here. First of all, you have a subdivision of an organization I'm president of evicted from an office, not me. And, I mean, the erroneous picture—we never talk in background about how, in 1991, when I was leading a non-violent march...

MR. RUSSERT: But, Reverend, we only have a minute...

REV. SHARPTON: Wait, wait. I'm going to answer your question.

MR. RUSSERT: We only have...

REV. SHARPTON: If you want to talk about background, talk about how a white male stabbed me at a non-violent march. I forgave him, testified for him. That's somebody that brings America together.

MR. RUSSERT: But why not apologize for Tawana Brawley where you accused a man of raping her and then had to pay money?

REV. SHARPTON: If I—no, she accused the man. I joined the team that defended her. I think that...

MR. RUSSERT: But you said Pagones was part of it.

REV. SHARPTON: She said he was part of it and I repeated the claim.

MR. RUSSERT: You were...

REV. SHARPTON: To apologize for believing and standing with a woman—I think all of us need to take women's claims more seriously, and I think we need to look at the entire background.

MR. RUSSERT: You defamed him and paid $65,000.

REV. SHARPTON: She named the person that she said did it to her. You are trying to badger me...

MR. RUSSERT: I'm not badgering you.

REV. SHARPTON: ...on standing up for a 15-year-old girl that I believed in. I didn't know him to defame him.

MR. RUSSERT: But if you do something wrong, step up and apologize.

REV. SHARPTON: If I believed I was wrong, I would. And that is why when someone did do something wrong to me, like tried to kill me, I forgave them. I challenge everyone running to demonstrate how they have been more forgiving and uniting than I have been. I look at that wound on my body every day and I forgive that man. I want people to get rid of the people like Lott. I'm on my way to South Carolina. I hope every candidate denounced the South Carolina flag. If people can go through 30 years and say they've got five incidents, they should look at everything that we've done that have been positive, try to...

MR. RUSSERT: No apology for Tawana Brawley?

REV. SHARPTON: No apology for standing up for civil rights. I know it might be out of style in some places in Washington, but it's the American way and the American people will rally behind it.

MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. And we'll be covering you on the campaign trail.

REV. SHARPTON: I'll be looking for you, Brother Russert.

MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back with our MEET THE PRESS Minute.

Copyright 2003 National Broadcasting Co. Inc. NBC News Transcripts

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