Rarely are secretaries of agriculture near the center of attention in Washington, but Tom Vilsack is in the hot seat after abetting the right-wing noise machine's latest attempt to undermine the Obama administration. On Monday an African-American US Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, was sacked because a right-wing website made her appear to have discriminated against a white farmer.
Sherrod, USDA's rural development director for Georgia, said she was ordered to resign on Monday after a video, posted on one of Andrew Breitbart's conservative sites, showed her saying she had not given a white farmer her "full force."
The NAACP later posted the full, unedited video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and it showed the remarks had been taken out of context in the version posted by Breitbart. Breitbart had said that he had posted the full version he was given. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now 87, appeared on CNN from his Georgia home and said Sherrod had been "helpful in every way - she saved our farm."
Vilsack should know better than to validate a phony right-wing narrative, but he's never been a happy partisan warrior. I'm not surprised he kicked a USDA official to the curb instead of waiting to hear all the facts. He probably hoped to kill this "news" story before it gained momentum. The problem is, he has created more incentive for Obama's opponents to gin up fake scandals. Vilsack also damaged his own reputation. Lots of people will want answers to the questions Greg Sargent asks today:
Now that the full Shirley Sherrod video has been released, vindicating her completely, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is promising to undertake a review of her firing. So maybe he will re-instate her after all.
But it isn't enough for Vilsack to reinstate her. People should demand that his review include an explanation for his own decision to fire her. We need to hear his justification for the decision to ax this woman before all the facts were in, on the strength of nothing more than an Andrew Breitbart smear.
Did Vilsack make any effort to learn more about her speech before giving her the push? If not, why not? Sherrod says she told top USDA officials that the full speech would vindicate her. Did anyone at USDA give her protestations even a passing listen? Did anyone try to obtain video of the full speech? If not, why not? Why was Breitbart's word alone allowed to drive such a high-profile decision?
People should also demand that the White House weigh in publicly on what happened here. The White House has only discussed this via anonymous leaks, and this morning, officials are conveniently leaking word that the White House prodded Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod's firing. That's nice, but was the White House told in advance that the firing was about to happen, and if so, why did it allow the firing to proceed?
The White House looks bad for supporting Vilsack's rush to judgment, then backing off when the full video of Sherrod's remarks appeared. But ultimately, this was Vilsack's mistake. Let's hope he learned the right lessons from it.
UPDATE: Charles Lemos posted the full video of Sherrod's speech and his reaction to it. It's worth a read.
SECOND UPDATE: Vilsack has apologized and offered Sherrod another USDA position. I've posted the video after the jump. Good for him; it's not always easy for politicians to admit a mistake. TPMDC reported today,
In response to a question from TPMDC, Vilsack called the debacle "a teachable moment for me." He admitted that Sherrod had received advance notice of Breitbart's intention to (mis)use the clip and had attempted to inform her superiors, including Vilsack, by email -- but the email did not get through, and thus her superiors' first contact with her regarding the incident was after Breitbart's release of the clip.