Civil rights activist and radio talk show host Rev. Al Sharpton and rightwing radio show host and political commentator Sean Hannity fired up their troops during a discussion billed as “The Great Debate: President Obama’s Report Card” at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers in midtown Manhattan recently.
But instead of debating the first two and a half years of the Obama administration, Hannity spent much of the debate digging up boogeymen from the 2008 presidential campaign, while Sharpton beat back a barrage of often unsubstantiated conservative talking points and delivered several verbal bombs of his own.
The sold-out event was part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization Sharpton founded in New York in 1991. And the dialogue between the two familiar adversaries started out cordially enough.
“Rev. Al, over the years, you and I have had passionate debates and we often disagree,” Hannity said. “I’m very honored to be back again because in spite of our disagreements, we have had a free, fair and open exchange of ideas. It’s an honor to be back. I really appreciate your invitation. Thank you.”
“I think that we have got to take the poison out of political discussions,” Sharpton said. “I think we need to see that people that disagree can do it without being disagreeable.” But just seconds after Hannity laid down a series of sweeping generalizations about the national debt and Obama’s role in creating it, the conservative commentator invoked the name of 1960s radical Bill Ayers and some of the most poisonous vitriol of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I didn’t think we would ever have a president of the United States that started his campaign in the home of a unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, a guy that bombed the Capitol, New York City police headquarters right here in this city and also bombed the Pentagon of the United States and says he’s not sorry about it,” Hannity argued, unearthing right wing arguments many thought were buried with Obama’s victories in the Democratic primary and general election in 2008. But Hannity went even deeper.
“I never thought we would have a president who sat in the pews of a guy by the name of Jeremiah Wright that said …” Jeers and groans from Sharpton supporters cut Hannity off in mid-sentence before he pressed on.
“I want God to bless America, I want God to bless everyone in this room. I don’t want anybody to say ‘God damn America,’” Hannity added as his supporters offered a spattering of applause before he continued. “He said of Rev. Wright, ‘I am fortified by him, he is like family to me. I could no more disown Rev. Wright than I could the Black community.’” Hannity went on for several moments, touching on First Lady Michelle Obama, Nazism, Israel, the auto industry bailout and much more before ending his first statement with, “Obama has been timid and weak, and I think it’s time for change.”
Sharpton forcefully punched back. “First of all, let me say that what you just heard is the reason that President Obama won the election, and that is you cannot run the nation on negatives,” Sharpton shot back in response to Hannity’s onslaught.
“We opened this discussion not to talk about what we didn’t believe would happen because I hate to give you the memo, Mr. Hannity. Mr. Obama, with all of the allegations you raised, won the election,” Sharpton added.
“So, obviously the American people did not believe the allegations that were made, all of which were raised during the election. All of this was run, and you know better than anyone because it was run all day and all night on Fox News.”
Then Sharpton specifically rebuked Hannity’s assertion about Bill Ayers’ living room being the birthplace of Obama’s political career with a historical jab at a conservative icon.
“That’s like me saying I don’t understand why Ronald Reagan started his campaign in Mississippi, in a town that was only known for being where three civil rights workers — two Jews and a Black — were killed,” Sharpton explained. “But, why go back into that when that election is settled? We can go forward.” For the next several minutes, Sharpton and Hannity sparred back and forth over an array of subjects, including the looming government shutdown and who is ultimately responsible for the country’s current economic dire straits. “They (Republicans) promised that if the country is going bankrupt and we need fiscal responsibility, they would go back to 2008 spending levels. Paul Ryan’s budget takes us back to 2008 spending levels. Promise fulfilled,” Hannity said.
And Sharpton fired back. “You want to start the economic story with Obama restoring an American house that had been leveled, rather than starting with the fact that the American house was leveled economically and he had to do things to rebuild the house that he didn’t bring down,” Sharpton argued. Then Sharpton, in response to Hannity’s repeated characterization of President Obama as “the anointed one,” brought the house down when he delivered what was perhaps the line of the evening.
“The problem is,” said Sharpton, “that if you’re going to have a messiah, he has to at least hang around for the resurrection.”