(POLITICO) A few days after 18-year-old Mike Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, White House officials enlisted an unusual source for on-the-ground intelligence amid the chaos and tear gas: the Rev. Al Sharpton, a fiery activist who became a household name by provoking rather than pacifying.

Sharpton—once such a pariah that Clinton administration officials rushed through their ribbon-cuttings in Harlem for fear he’d show up and force them to, gasp, shake his hand—arrived on the scene 72 hours after the shooting at the request of Brown’s grandfather, who had admired his advocacy on behalf of the family of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

But if the old Al Sharpton would have parachuted into Ferguson to rile up the masses, the Obama-era Al Sharpton trod a more gingerly path to justice. Over the years, the 59-year-old former Brooklyn protest leader turned MSNBC talk-show host has embraced a new identity, one that reflects his evolution from agitator to insider with all that implies. In Ferguson, Sharpton established himself as a de facto contact and conduit for a jittery White House seeking to negotiate a middle ground between meddling and disengagement.

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