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Vilsack could still resign

July 21, 2010 - Jim Anderson

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made a poor decision when he pressed for the resignation of Shirley Sherrod.

Vilsack says he’s now reconsidering.

He ought to think about offering his own resignation.

“I’m sorry,” he might offer. “But the last thing the Obama administration needs is people who care what Andrew Breitbart conjures up.”

(On a scale of credibility, Breitbart now ranks somewhere between the owner of an offshore online casino and the folks who post classified ads offering free Yorkshire puppies.)

Yet, plenty of people — including the NAACP — were duped by the Breitbart-owned website that posted a partial video of a Sherrod speech.

With Fox News seemingly ready to pile on, it appears that Vilsack (and, yes, likely the White House) panicked.

Unless something new emerges about Sherrod’s job performance, there’s no denying that her resignation was unwarranted.

But Vilsack could still resign. He could blame the NAACP. He could blame the video editor, he could blame the White House, he could blame the World Cup referees.

Here’s the thing. The question isn’t whether attack dogs like Breitbart are going to change their methods. They won’t.

The question is whether the Obama administration has a higher regard for outside intimidation than internal fairness.

(I’ve attached a portion of the latest AP story for background.)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration faced a blast of criticism on Wednesday over its ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee for her remarks about race. The woman says she’s not sure she would go back to her job now, even if asked.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he would reconsider the department’s decision to ask Shirley Sherrod to resign. Sherrod, the director of rural development in Georgia, was asked by department officials to leave her job on Monday after conservative bloggers posted an edited video of her saying that she initially didn’t give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a nonprofit farm aid group.
Sherrod says the video distorted her full speech, which described how she came to realize the white farmer needed her help and which she says was intended to promote racial reconciliation.

Sherrod says she submitted her resignation under pressure from the White House; the USDA said seeking the resignation was Vilsack’s decision alone.

Vilsack decided to reconsider after speaking with the White House Tuesday evening, according to an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the call.

But in nationally broadcast interviews Wednesday, Sherrod said she doesn’t know if she’d return to her job, even if asked, because she’s unsure how she would be treated now.

The incident is a stumble for the Obama administration and for the NAACP. Both reversed their positions after condemning Sherrod based on the video first released Monday night. It is the latest in a series of race-related brouhahas to garner national attention since President Barack Obama became the nation’s first black chief executive.

The incident comes as the NAACP and the conservative tea party movement have been trading charges of racism.

The two-minute, 38-second clip posted Monday by was presented as evidence that the NAACP was hypocritical in its recent resolution condemning what it calls racist elements of the tea party movement. The website’s owner, Andrew Breitbart, said the video shows the civil rights group condoning the same kind of racism it says it wants to erase. is the same outfit that gained fame last year after airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend.

Reacting to the video on Monday, the USDA asked Sherrod to resign and the NAACP sent out a statement disavowing her comments, which were made at a local NAACP event.

Sherrod then took to the media airwaves Tuesday, saying she was unfairly attacked and that the entirety of her remarks, delivered in March in Georgia, were not about racism, but part of a larger story about racial reconciliation and learning from her mistakes.

People who knew Sherrod were quick to defend her, including the wife of the white farmer who she discussed in the speech.

‘‘We probably wouldn’t have (our farm) today if it hadn’t been for her leading us in the right direction,’’ said Eloise Spooner of Iron City, Ga. ‘‘I wish she could get her job back because she was good to us, I tell you.’’

Both the NAACP and the USDA pulled back on their criticism after learning details about her speech and viewing the full video, which the NAACP posted on its website Tuesday evening.
In the clip posted on, Sherrod described the first time a white farmer came to her for help. It was 1986, and she worked for a nonprofit rural farm aid group. She said the farmer came in acting ‘‘superior’’ to her and she debated how much help to give him.

‘‘I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland, and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,’’ Sherrod said.
Initially, she said, ‘‘I didn’t give him the full force of what I could do’’ and only gave him enough help to keep his case progressing. Eventually, she said, his situation ‘‘opened my eyes’’ that whites were struggling just like blacks, and helping farmers wasn’t so much about race but was ‘‘about the poor versus those who have.’’

In the full 43-minute video, Sherrod tells the story of her father’s death in 1965, saying he was killed by white men who were never charged. She says she made a commitment to stay in the South the night of her father’s death, despite the dreams she had always had of leaving her rural town.

‘‘When I made that commitment I was making that commitment to black people and to black people only,’’ she said. ‘‘But you know God will show you things and he’ll put things in your path so that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people.’’

Sherrod said officials showed no interest in listening to her explanation when she was asked to resign. She said she was on the road Monday when USDA deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook called her and told her to pull over and submit her resignation on her Blackberry because the White House wanted her out.

‘‘It hurts me that they didn’t even try to attempt to see what is happening here, they didn’t care,’’ Sherrod said. ‘‘I’m not a racist. ... Anyone who knows me knows that I’m for fairness.’’


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