Shirley Sherrod: Proof that a week is a long time in politics

On Monday Shirley Sherrod was called racist and forced to resign. Now the White House is begging her to return
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The Independent Online

It began, like so many political brouhahas these days, with a video posted on a website – a clip from a speech by a mid-level black official of the US Department of Agriculture in which she mused on an incident from a quarter of a century ago, long before she joined the federal government. But in the space of a couple of news cycles, Shirley Sherrod's life story was rewritten – twice.

First she was branded an unreconstructed racist and sacked. Within barely 24 hours however, she was offered a new job by the Government, this time hailed as a symbol of racial reconciliation and redemption.

In the same blinks of the news cycle, the right saw a seeming propaganda coup transformed into an own goal; the Agriculture Department was obliged to issue a cringing apology; and the Obama White House, not for the first time, had clumsily stumbled into a controversy on race – the very issue this President was supposedly uniquely placed to overcome.

Utterly forgotten amid the fracas were two genuinely important political events: passage of an extension of jobless benefits that will help millions of Americans brought low by the recession, and the signature of the most sweeping financial regulatory reform in 75 years. Welcome, in short, to US politics in this hot and ill-tempered pre-election summer of 2010.

Depending on how you look at it, the story began either 24 years ago or at the start of this week.

On Monday morning, the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a two-and-a-half minute video extract of a speech made in March 2010 by Ms Sherrod, the Agriculture Department's (USDA) director of rural development for Georgia, in which she apparently admitted having discriminated against a white farmer.

Within hours she was receiving abusive messages. Inevitably the controversy was seized upon by Fox News, mouthpiece of the conservative movement, which denounced the "shocking" video and demanded Ms Sherrod's resignation. It hardly needed to ask. That afternoon she was travelling when Cheryl Cook, a deputy undersecretary at the USDA called to inform her that the White House, no less, wanted her out, because her comments were causing a furore on the cable networks.

"They called me twice," Ms Sherrod explained. "The last time, they asked me to pull over to the side of the road and submit my resignation on my BlackBerry, and that's what I did." Not for the first time, political accusation, conviction and assassination, internet-style, had taken less than half a day.

Even the NAACP, the venerable US civil rights group that had organised the meeting at which Ms Sherrod spoke, praised her ousting – a move probably not unconnected with its accusation a few days earlier that the right-wing Tea Party movement, darling of Fox News among others, had racist elements in its ranks.

Alas, in this particular assassination it quickly became apparent that the wrong person had been put to the sword. The clip, it emerged, had been lifted entirely out of context from a speech that lasted 43 minutes.

Far from venting reverse racist spleen against whites, the 62-year-old Ms Sherrod was telling her thoroughly uplifting life story – of how her father had been murdered by white men in 1965, at the height of the civil rights struggle; how she had married her husband Charles, a civil rights campaigner committed to non-violence; and how she had become the director of a non-profit group that helped black farmers, in an era when the USDA was notorious for its discrimination against blacks.

Yes, she admitted to her NAACP audience, she initially had had her doubts when the white farmer and his wife approached her back in 1986, desperate for help. But help them she did, as she came to understand that economic and financial pressures were the same for everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin.

In the event, she became friends with the farmers she saved from ruin. "If we hadn't found her we would have lost everything," Roger Spooner, now 82, says. "She's always been nice and polite and considerate," adds his wife, Eloise. "She was just a good person."

By this point in proceedings it was clear – even to right-wing diehards convinced that black officials in the Obama adminstration, from the President down, are waging a war of revenge against whites – that the original story didn't quite stand up, that the vilified racist was in fact an exemplar of racial harmony.

By Wednesday Bill O'Reilly no less, that most pugnacious of Fox hosts, was apologising to Ms Sherrod "for not doing my homework". He wasn't the only one. Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary, called with an apology, offering her another job at his department. Albeit more circumspectly, the White House also ate humble pie. "A disservice was done. An apology was owed," said Robert Gibbs, Mr Obama's spokesman.

Given the cable beast's unquenchable need for novelty, the uproar probably will subside quickly; Ms Sherrod's personal 15 minutes of fame will soon be up. But the lessons of the affair ought to linger.

With the exception of the lady herself and the Spooners, who resolutely confirmed what really happened, no-one emerges with credit. Not the right and its media acolytes, in their eagerness for anything with which to smear the Obama adminstration, and further improve the Republicans' already bright prospects for November's mid term elections.

Nor the USDA or the NAACP, which both bought the original story and acted without fully checking the facts. "We were snookered," [into believing that Ms Sherrod made racist remarks] Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP president, noted ruefully.

And certainly not the White House. It claims it had no direct hand in Ms Sherrod's hasty removal, but her version of events suggests otherwise. The White House was as guilty as Bill O'Reilly of not doing its homework.

And Team Obama has a wider problem. This is America's first black president, whose moving and perceptive speech on race was a highlight of his 2008 campaign. But for the second time in a year he has put his foot in it on an issue of race.

In July 2009 Mr Obama's statement that the police had "acted stupidly" in arresting the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates led to uproar only put to rest by a "beer summit" at the White House of the various parties involved.

Perhaps a similar exercise involving Mr Obama, Mr Vilsack, Ms Sherrod and the Spooners is in order. (The President and Ms Sherrod are said to have spoken yesterday.) Either way, it is hard to dispute that this White House is overly fearful of giving the slightest ammunition to the right, however dubious that ammunition's provenance.

Above all, these three days in July have provided a sobering cameo of how news operates in Washington in the internet age. Politics in America has always been a brutal sport, in which anything – including heavily edited footage of an obscure Agriculture Department official talking about a tiny event long ago – is fair game. But more than ever, the media is part of the process. Talk show hosts become national political candidates, and vice versa. News is born, explodes and dies at cyberspace speed. No one, it seems, dares take a deep breath to check the facts.

"This is a good woman, and she's been put through hell," said Mr Vilsack, who is said to have offered Ms Sherrod a post at the USDA focusing on civil rights. But Ms Sherrod was dubious yesterday. "I'm not so sure that going back to the department is the right thing to do," she told CNN. And who can blame her?

The blogger to blame

In America's firmament of conservative bloggers, few stars shine brighter than Andrew Breitbart, who counts Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as friends and considers Matt Drudge a mentor. (Strangely, he also co-founded the liberal Huffington Post website, an association he dropped as his former colleague Arianna Huffington moved to the left.)

His suite of websites, the first of which he started in 2005, has become a key arena for right-wing opinionating in the US and Breitbart has never shied from the limelight.

He cheerfully refers to Barack Obama as a Marxist, is regularly speared by liberal watchdogs for distorting the truth to attack his enemies, and used his Big Government site to air a series of heavily edited videos that led to the demise of the ACORN voter registration group over allegations of fraud.

If the row over the Shirley Sherrod case exposes him to a new level of publicity, it seems unlikely that he will shrink from it.