Sharpton Revs Up for the 'Shadow Inauguration'

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POLLY FORSTER FOR TIME

Al Sharpton in Washington

No doubt he had intended his press conference outside the Supreme Court to match the dignity of his dapper three-piece suit. But for at least the first five minutes, the Rev. Al Sharpton struggles to extricate himself from the excited high school kids who have discovered him on their way to field trips at the Court.

"Hi. Can I get my picture with you?" cries one fresh-faced teenager after another. Unsmilingly, Sharpton stands immersed, then battles through to a clear spot on the terrace. Undeterred, the kids follow him until Sharpton finally launches into his riff against Bush's inauguration — at which point the novelty wears off for his young admirers, and all that is left is a gaggle of lower-rung journalists. Eventually Sharpton's savior (a CNN correspondent) shows up, and Al lights up like a 250-watt bulb.

Putting on a show

"We believe that Bush got into this position under the most clouded of circumstances," says Sharpton, his long, thick, wavy hair sprayed stiffly into place. To protest the swearing-in of President-elect George Bush, Sharpton says, he will hold a simultaneous "shadow inauguration" in downtown D.C., blocks away from the inaugural route, where he plans to give his own inaugural address and inaugural oath. At the rally, scheduled for 10:30 on Saturday morning, he will deputize hundreds of people to amend the electoral process.

Renown for his flair for publicity and a penchant for jogging suits, Sharpton is now pushing his own program of election reform, whose principal objectives are the adoption of a uniform standard for voting machines, vote-counting and voting roll purges.

From the park where the rally will be held, Sharpton plans to lead a march to the Supreme Court. "Our first job is to turn around the impact of what was done in this building in a 5-to-4 vote," he says, referring to the Court decision that he describes as Bush's being "selected" by the Justices.

A master of the media

By the time Sharpton reaches the Court on Saturday, Bush will be long gone. But the Reverend Al knows he's hard to ignore. In addition to his outspoken comments on the airwaves, Sharpton intends to voice his cause in federal court. He has already filed numerous suits against voter disenfranchisement throughout the country, he says. "We want to say to Mr. Bush that the battle is not over; it has just begun."

But ever alert to the p.r. aspect of his crusades — some might say the crusading aspect of his p.r. — Sharpton is quick to distance his efforts from the more radical protests that are planned for the inauguration. His battle, he stresses, is to be fought in the spirit of Martin Luther King.

Sharpton also speaks out against Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general. "It was the worst possible signal he could send," he says. His march, he hopes, will send an equally strong signal back to the President-elect. "As he begins his term," he declares, "we will begin ours."

The bored journalists fling a few half-hearted questions, but Sharpton, his eyes scanning the crowd for more TV opportunities, quickly tires and eases away.