A right-wing activist has put President Obama under pressure by defaming a senior government official. Now his administration is trying to minimize the damage.
Accused, fired and re-hired: what Shirley Sherrod had to go through this week is both a lesson in American politics and a disturbing reflection of American sensibilities. Until Tuesday evening, Sherrod was a senior employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On Monday, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, 41, published a brief video excerpt on biggovernment.com, one of his five websites, showing Sherrod speaking at an NAACP dinner party last March. In the excerpt, she describes how, while working for a social welfare organization set up to assist farmers in need 24 years ago, she hesitated to give a white farm couple her full assistance.
So much for the video excerpt. The charge emanating from it: Sherrod is a black racist. It didn’t take long for the right-wing Fox News organization to pounce on the story. Commentators Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity presented it as proof of racism in the Obama administration and vehemently demanded Sherrod be fired. That was already a done deal, since Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had signed her dismissal notice.
What actually happened wasn’t clear until the NAACP released the entire 43-minute recording of Sherrod’s speech on the Internet. Sherrod told the audience about the episode with the white farm couple, saying she believed at the time that their predicament would be handled by white lawyers and that her job was to help black families. But the white couple didn’t receive any help, and Sherrod said that was when she realized it wasn’t a question of black or white but one of rich or poor. She went on to say that the incident helped her overcome her own prejudices. The white farm couple, meanwhile, appeared on television confirming the great help they got from Sherrod, saying that without it, their farm would have been sold on the steps of the courthouse some 20 years ago.
Now it became really embarrassing for the Obama administration. Vilsack publicly apologized and offered Sherrod a new job. Obama personally telephoned and asked her to continue work on behalf of the needy. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had to admit during a White House press briefing that no one had checked the facts before making decisions.
The only person not apologizing was right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart. This star on the conservative activism scene and welcome guest at right-wing Tea Party functions says he takes nothing back. Instead, he takes refuge in the assertion that he wasn’t attacking Shirley Sherrod; he was going after the NAACP and the fact that those excerpts he picked from her speech had produced laughter and applause in the audience. The only problem is that even this is not true.
The story of Shirley Sherrod’s supposed racism is nothing more than a complete manipulation by a right-wing activist. Breitbart succeeded in putting pressure on Obama’s administration, if for no other reason than exposing its blind hypersensitivity to questions of racial discrimination and its insecurity in the face of conservative accusations.