Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Appalling. Disgusting. Awful.

I don't really want to be in the business of commenting on every crazy thing that the crazy portions of the right (or left, for that matter) come up with, but since it's become a governing story, I suppose I'll say something. 

But first, the facts as I understand them, based on this WaPo story: Shirley Sherrod, who worked at the Ag Department, told what apparently was a trite and formulaic story in public about how she learned when she was young that it was wrong to discriminate against anyone.  Carefully edited and released by racemonger and bottom-feeder Andrew Breitbart, it was turned into a statement that she discriminates against white people, and of course immediately became a major flap in the conservative world. 

Just to stop right there: this is in fact appalling, disgusting, and awful behavior.  To selectively edit a video to incite racial hatred...it doesn't get a lot more slimy than that.  Second, it's pathetic.  Really, that's the best you got? 

OK, enough of my editorializing, and on to the presidential side of it.  As soon as the story went nuts, Sherrod was asked to resign from her job, apparently on the basis that the smear against her was either true, or as Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, because "The controversy surrounding her comments would create situations where her decisions, rightly or wrongly, would be called into question making it difficult for her to bring jobs to Georgia." 

Liberals have been outraged that she lost her job, and rightly so -- if Democrats go around firing everyone who draws the fire of Breitbart, Beck, and the rest of them without any regard for the merit of the accusations, the Obama administration will be unable to function.  In response, the Vilsack put out his statement, and the White House is denying any involvement, claiming to Greg Sargent and others that USDA acted alone. 

This isn't good enough.  Reputation matters in these things.  The White House, in my opinion, did an excellent job of handling these things last year, letting Van Jones go when something specific they were wise not to defend surfaced, but ignoring other attacks if they were based on phony smears.  This one doesn't fit the pattern.  Sherrod, as far as I can tell from what's on the record so far, did absolutely nothing wrong, and shouldn't have been fired for it. 

The White House has (whether accurately or not) set up Vilsack as the scapegoat for this, but that's not good enough.  Externally, Obama needs to make it absolutely clear that it's a mistake: he should very publicly take Vilsack to the woodshed.  Internally, whoever panicked at the thought of Glenn Beck yelling, or sobbing, or whatever about this needs to go, whether it's someone at the White House or, more likely I think, at the Ag Department.

(Why is my guess that it was someone at Ag?  Because everyone at the White House has dealt with this stuff on a daily basis, and they don't have a pattern of knee-jerk caving.  So my guess is that it was someone in the sleepy mid-level bureaucracy at a sleepy agency that just didn't know how to deal with it.  Just to be clear, though, I'm guessing about that).

The key here is that the president himself needs to make it clear that this was a mistake if he doesn't want his reputation damaged, and while I don't think Vilsack needs to lose his job, Obama needs to make clear that both the original decision to fire her without knowing the facts, and Vilsack's statement, do not reflect administration policy.  Mistakes happen, but a president doesn't want a low-level mistake (or for that matter a high-level one, if it really was someone in the upper levels of the White House who was responsible) to hurt his reputation. 

This isn't going to be the last time the crazies target someone.  The Van Jones standard was a good one, and it's worked well for the last several months.  It's going to take a high-profile move by Barack Obama to restore that standard, and he should do it, and soon.

5 comments:

  1. Post: Eminently sensible.
    Maybe you should send post along with your resume to WH/USDA. Upgrade the bureaucracy!

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  2. Jonathan, You have that exactly right. People scoff when I rail about how amatuerish the White House communications shop is, but instead of making anonymous comments to Greg Sargent and Ben Smith, somebody in the shop who is higher than Robert Gibbs should step up to a podium and say everything that you suggested they say, in the way that you suggested they say it.

    This is exactly what I mean when I rail on those clowns as a bunch of amateurs who think they are still on a campaign bus. The professional thing to do is step up publicly and formally, handle it, take Vilsack to the woodshed in no uncertain terms, give the woman her job back, and move past this. Even the NAACP owned up to being wrong.

    But no. They are anonymously making calls to be printed on BLOGS -- most people heard about this ON TV -- blaming other people and disavowing responsibility. Hiding under the desk. Yours is the professional way to handle a grotesque brouhaha like this.

    Wanna job?

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  3. Just out of curiosity, did you watch the selectively-edited portion yourself before being advised of the larger context? because it is pretty long on its own, and really is pretty hard to listen to without thinking, this is just stuff you can't say as a public official acting in official capacity ( and if you're accepting an award from a major national organization and you are a serving federal official, you are definitely in your official capacity, even if the award is ofr service outside that capacity). No doubt, Vilsack acted absurdly quickly, i absolutely grant that. but early in the day, no one knew what was still coming. I put myself in the mind of being her boss in a federal bureaucracy and I have no idea how to begin to ear up to defend her, absent the fuller context, which was not then available. And it went from there.

    So yes, the result was unjust and needs correcting, but the actual discreet acts and initial gut reactions that set them in motion (meaning in the USDA and at the top of DepAg) I think are far more understandable than you allow. The situation just needs to be put right, but from there I really don't think there is that much to be learned here. If she is going to tell that story in public as a a federal official, she needs to do it in a way that works in the current media environment. That's a basic competency required of government officials who are going to have any public communication role at all.

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  4. "If she is going to tell that story in public as a a federal official, she needs to do it in a way that works in the current media environment"

    In a 45 minute speech I don't understand how you can defend yourself against soundbites. Selective editing is one thing. But to take a story from 25 years ago and distort it to say it is happening today; to ignore the bulk of the story- how she helped the white farmer when his lawyer proved incompetent is not journalism. No one should allow Breithbart on TV, or at least without a chryon:- "this man has told lies; be careful we don't know if he's doing it again"

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  5. Kooky, mostly unserious conspiracy theorizing to follow: Sherrod got her job a day after winning a $13m settlement against Ag. If her job was secretly a part of the settlement (Ag denies that it was) then there could have been resentful bureaucrats looking for a reason to ax her. They leak the video to Breitbart and waits for the inevitable fallout to consume her. Their mistake was assuming that the media doesn't care about context, which, to be fair, is a pretty reasonable mistake to make.

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