In the end, the roller coaster ride that Shirley Sherrod experienced last month may well leave her better off than she was before she was forced onto it. If so, she will probably be the only person who can say so.
Just about everyone else who got involved in the case looks worse than they did, and probably is worse off than they were before it became a big enough story to displace (for a few days, anyway) the BP oil disaster as the lead on most cable networks. At least that’s my assessment, although I should hasten to add that apologists for just about everyone (especially those on the right) defended their positions by taking to the offense. And what else is new in that regard?
The story began, for those who may have missed the details, with a post by a conservative blogger named Andrew Breitbart. Mr. Breitbart, heretofore unknown to all but the most aware political observers and players, has been managing and authoring a number of right-wing blogs for some time.
This man is not subtle about his views. Shortly after Senator Ted Kennedy’s death last year, Mr. Breitbart called the Senator “a villain, a duplicitous bastard, and a special pile of human excrement.” He is often a speaker at tea party events, has worked closely with Matt Drudge, and has described himself as Matt Drudge’s “bitch.” (Draw whatever conclusions from that self-description as you may.)
He may need a new moniker after the dust settles from his role in the Sherrod story. That role was to create an accusation of reverse racism against Ms. Sherrod (who is black) by posting a short excerpt of a speech Ms. Sherrod gave to a local NAACP chapter earlier this year.
In the speech, Mr. Sherrod (then a U.S. Department of Agriculture official) spoke inspiringly of an awakening she had experienced some 25 years earlier when she was working for a non-profit organization that sought to help farmers who were struggling.
After telling her audience that her father had been lynched by the Klan when she was a child, she explained that her first reaction to the white farmers who sought her assistance was negative.
But she overcame that initial feeling and helped the farmers, a husband and wife who were facing foreclosure on their farm. Helping the couple find a competent and committed attorney, Ms. Sherrod befriended the couple, who remain thankful for her efforts to this day.
Of course, Mr. Breitbart didn’t include that part of her speech in his blog post. All he included were the few minutes that made Ms. Sherrod sound like, well, like a reverse racist.
The next actors to enter the scene were the gang from Fox News, which apparently has an inside track to Mr. Breitbart’s posts, as it almost immediately aired a copy of the clip that Breitbart had put on his blog. Bill O’Reilly ran with the story, if that’s what it could be called, of Ms. Sherrod’s supposedly racist comments in her speech and demanded her immediate resignation. (He apologized two days later.) And he got it even before his demand hit the airwaves. (His show was taped earlier in the day, and by the time it aired, Ms. Sherrod had resigned.)
She resigned at the behest of either the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, or someone in the White House (or maybe a combination of both). Vilsack claimed, in a press conference that was a classic “fall on the sword for the boss” act, that he and he alone was responsible for the hasty – and highly regrettable – decision to ask Ms. Sherrod to resign. He claimed not to have spoken to President Obama about the incident and denied being pressured by anyone else in the White House on the subject.
He further claimed that he had acted hastily because he was ultra-sensitive to the many charges of racism that he inherited when he became Secretary of the Agriculture Department a year and a half ago.
But he wasn’t the only possible ally of Ms. Sherrod who jumped the gun by firing a salvo at her before all the facts had been ascertained. In fact, the first such shot, other than O’Reilly’s, was fired by the NAACP, the very organization to whom Ms. Sherrod had delivered her inspirational speech.
After hearing the excerpt of the speech posted by Breitbart, the organization issued a statement condemning it. A day later, after taking the time to study the entire speech, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous claimed his organization had been “snookered.”
If it was, it must have had the same snookering Secretary Vilsack and his friends at the White House had experienced. Vilsack was all over himself with contrition when he took the hit for the Obama administration at his press conference. It appeared to be all he could do to keep from crying his eyes out with grief over the pain he had caused “this good woman,” whom he had personally apologized to and offered a new job as some kind of head of racial healing within the department.
President Obama also went the contrition route, even though he still claimed not to have had a say in the initial decision. He followed Vilsack’s call to Ms. Sherrod with one of his own. Ms. Sherrod says of that conversation that while the president didn’t actually say the words “I’m sorry,” she felt he was apologizing just by making the call and reassuring her.
At week’s end, Ms. Sherrod was contemplating her future, probably trying to decide why in the world she would want to get back on the roller coaster of public service, now that she had essentially regained her good name and had become something of a hero for having borne the brunt of the worst the right-wing nutcases can concoct about the alleged reverse racism in the Obama administration and having overcome the worst of the cowardly attitudes the president and his minion continually convey on the subject of race.
In the end, the Sherrod story most probably will not even be a footnote in the annals of the Obama years. But for now, it makes two points very clear: The conservative movement in America is out of control, and the administration is scared to death of it.