The saga of former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod has quickly turned into a whole new kind of public-relations nightmare for the Department of Agriculture’s Tom Vilsack. When a video of Sherrod seemingly making racist remarks at an NAACP dinner hit the Internet on Monday, Vilsack panicked, and, without an investigation, without meeting with Sherrod, without seeing the whole unedited tape, had one of his deputies call Sherrod three times “harass” her, Sherrod says until she handed in her resignation. Why the rush? “You’re going to be on Glenn Beck tonight,” Sherrod says the deputy told her.
But the narrative spun by Andrew Brietbart soon began to unravel, and by the time the full speech was released last night, it was clear that Brietbart and Vilsack had gotten it all wrong. In her speech, Sherrod talked of how her father was killed in 1965 by a white man who was never brought to justice. She swore to stay in the South and devote her life to improving the lives of “black people only.” That’s why, as she recounted in the original clip, she passed white farmer Roger Spooner off to a white lawyer over two decades ago. But she soon saw that the white lawyer didn’t care about the white farmer, either, and she realized that it wasn’t just black people that needed her help, it was poor people of any race. “There is no difference between us,” she said.
Vilsack — after initially maintaining that even if Sherrod wasn’t actually a stone-cold racist the perception of her being a racist was damaging enough — soon became more open to reinstating her after a call from the White House. “I am of course willing and will conduct a thorough review and consider additional facts to ensure to the American people we are providing services in a fair and equitable manner,” he said in an early-morning statement. Yeah, uh … you think?
We’ve all seen the video, and it’s clear to everyone — even the Fox News host who apparently calls the shots at the USDA these days — that Sherrod was the victim of an unjust decision. Now Vilsack has to decide whether to reverse it. Sound familiar? Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig found himself in the same spot seven weeks ago after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce torpedoed a rare perfect game for pitcher Armando Galarraga. What was infuriating about the Galarraga incident was that human error was allowed to trump indisputable video evidence. How can everyone know the runner was out, yet the ruling at first base was “safe”? It didn’t make sense, and it wasn’t fair. Selig never did overturn the call, though; too many are blown each season, and calling a do-over for one could have set the league down a path it didn’t want to travel.
But there is no slippery slope in the Sherrod case. What, you’re going to rehire all the people who you thought were racists but were actually preachers of racial equality? Good! The only downside to giving this woman her job back is that Vilsack would be admitting his human error — how panicky and cowardly he had been to begin with. Better that, though, than panicky, cowardly, and obstinate.