The firing of Shirley Sherrod — and the cowardice of Tom Vilsack
From everything I’ve read, I’m told that the firing of Shirley Sherrod, the once and probably future Agriculture Department official in Georgia, is about race or dishonest journalism or the vagaries of the 24-hour, incessant news cycle. Permit me a dissent. It is mostly about cowardice.
The coward in question is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who, even though from Iowa, fired Sherrod in a New York minute, and by extension and tradition –“The buck stops here,” remember? – Barack Obama himself. Where do they get off treating anyone so shabbily?
Sherrod was caught on video supposedly telling an NAACP meeting last March that she had not given a certain farmer the service he deserved because he was white. A clip of that speech made the rounds of right wing blogs and media outlets — Fox News, for instance — and in no time Vilsack ordered the woman canned. He moved with what would have been commendable dispatch had he first heard her side of the story, viewed the entire video and asked what its source was. The answers should have stopped him in his tracks.
The full video showed that Sherrod, after repressing some racial antipathy, treated the farmer with dignity and efficiency — and, anyway, the entire event took place more than 20 years ago. Had Vilsack seen the entire video, he would also have learned that Sherrod’s story had a moral: She learned that poverty, not race, is what mattered. Since this is America, it is God who taught her that.
But that full video was not shown by the right wing blogger Andrew Breitbart.
Sherrod was fired so quickly she says she was called on her cell phone while driving and told to pull over. Her resignation was then demanded. She did as she was told — and then screamed to the media, which, since this is America, is her God-given right. Her story, complete with praise from the white farmer’s widow, started to spill out. It was clear she had been done wrong. Vilsack would not budge. The White House would not budge. The Obama administration could not afford to appear soft on black racism. They could not afford to say sorry, either.
Little by little, the administration backed down. Vilsack yesterday explained that he had asked for Sherrod’s resignation because “the controversy surrounding her comments would create a situation where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her bring jobs to Georgia.” These are appalling words. “Rightly or wrongly?” The two are not the same. One you punish, the other you defend. This is what our system is about. Look it up.
And, even if rightly, you do not dismiss an employee, wreck a career, without doing due diligence. What’s her side of the story? Where did the video come from? Is Breitbart a trustworthy source? The term “rightly or wrongly” suggests that the truth does not matter — only perception, the politics of the situation. That, in turns, brings us back to the beginning. This entire episode is only partially about race or tawdry journalism. It’s fundamentally about cowardice — about not doing the right thing until pressured and not adhering to fundamental principles of fairness.
Vilsack had a solemn obligation to treat his employee fairly. Obama, who reportedly was briefed on the matter and stood by his man, had a similar obligation. The two ought to be ashamed.
By Richard Cohen | July 21, 2010; 9:18 AM ET