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The Shirley Sherrod Saga: Lessons From Bureaucratic Blunders

5 years ago
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An apologetic phone call from Barack Obama and a new (and still unaccepted) job offer from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should help end the media frenzy over the grotesquely unfair firing of Shirley Sherrod. There still are mysteries, like who doctored the tape that right-wing attack artist Andrew Breitbart ballyhooed to erroneously and maliciously claim that Sherrod believed in reverse racism against white farmers. And Sherrod's own future may remain uncertain (a return to government, a book deal, a post with a foundation or other nonprofit), but it brightly shimmers after the poised and determined way that she has handled her inadvertent martyrdom.

Forget the cloying talk by Vilsack and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about this being another "teachable moment" (a challenge: find two other words in the English language that as convincingly signal saccharine insincerity.) In fact, many of the enduring lessons from Sherrod's political ordeal have nothing to do with racial justice or an irresponsible media culture. This was bureaucratic bungling at epic "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" levels.

Playing the role of Inspector Clouseau was Tom Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, who briefly was an active 2008 presidential candidate. For all of his executive experience and soaring ambition, Vilsack and his henchwoman, deputy undersecretary Cheryl Cook, made every wrong decision in a reign of error that produced Sherrod's forced resignation. In fact, Cabinet secretaries should be given a wrist bracelet with the initials WWTVD ("What Would Tom Vilsack Do") – so they can be certain to do the exact opposite during a future personnel crisis.

Here is the official clip-and-save (what a quaint paper-based metaphor) Tom Vilsack Don't List:

Don't Prevent Bad News from Reaching the Top: Last week, four days before Breitbart's video went viral, Sherrod tried to warn Vilsack and deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan of the danger that her words at a March NAACP speech would be wrenched out of context in a video clip. There was only one problem: Vilsack and Merrigan apparently existed in an hermetically sealed bubble unreachable by regional staffers like Sherrod.

Shirley Sherrod, as Vilsack explained at his Wednesday press conference, "sent an e-mail to me which I did not get. It was not addressed properly. It was also sent to the deputy secretary's attention. We did not discover it until after the fact, after this all came up."

It all sounded matter-of-fact, but think of the bureaucratic implications of Vilsack's explanation. Sherrod -- an Agriculture Department political appointee and not a civil service file clerk -- apparently had no reliable e-mail address for her boss, since she would have been alerted if a mere typo had prevented a message this important from getting through. Merrigan, the department's second-ranking official, cavalierly let e-mail from the field sit unread for four days.

What was Sherrod supposed to do: Write "Be Sure to Watch Glenn Beck Monday Night" in the subject line? (By the way, a phone call to the Department of Agriculture press office asking for clarification did not warrant a response.)

There is an obvious reason why Cabinet and White House officials should demand to hear immediately potential bad news from the field -- so they can deal with it before it hits the media. Had Sherrod been permitted to communicate with Vilsack, Merrigan or any top official, the Agriculture Department would have been able to kill the Breitbart story in about five minutes by releasing the full tape of Sherrod's NAACP speech. Instead, an exemplary public servant was wrongly fired and the subsequent embarrassment required the president himself to make an apologetic phone call.

Don't Fire Anyone Without a Face-to-Face Meeting: Call it the McChrystal precedent, since Obama handled matters correctly by waiting for the general to return to Washington before he was removed from his Afghan command. If the Breitbart story was important enough to panic Vilsack and the White House, then the Agriculture Department might have sprung for Sherrod's plane ticket to Washington to hear her side of the story before taking punitive action. Sherrod could have caught the 5:05 p.m. Delta flight out of Albany, Georgia, changing planes in (surprise) Atlanta, and been at the Agriculture Department in time for a 9:45 p.m. meeting.

But, of course, Sherrod never got a chance to respond to the false impression fostered by the Breitbart video until it was too late. As she put it in an emotional interview with NBC's Matt Lauer Wednesday morning, "I kept saying: 'Look at the entire thing. Look at my message,' and no one would listen. No one would listen." Click play below to watch the video:

Don't Force Subordinates to Do Your Dirty Work: During his mea culpa press conference Wednesday, Vilsack accepted personal "responsibility" nine separate times for firing Sherrod, declaring, "The buck stops with me." Cynics might suggest Vilsack was deliberately shielding the White House in his on-message insistence that he and only he made the decision to subject Sherrod to a political defenestration. But even taking Vilsack at his word raises the question: Why then was the task of getting rid of Shirley Sherrod left to Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook?

Cook's telephone manner seems to have been about as tactful as that of Rahm Emanuel in the middle of a tirade. As Sherrod told The Associated Press, apparently using the word "they" to refer to Cook, "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." The scene is novelistic in its horror: Sherrod sitting in her government-issue car on the side of a rural road typing with her thumbs a forced farewell to her governmental career because Vilsack's stand-in could not wait for her to return to her office to compose a graceful letter of resignation.

Don't Allow Subordinates to Blame Anything on the White House: Along the corridors of power in Washington -- just like in a Humphrey Bogart movie -- someone invariably has to take the fall. And the unalterable rule is that it is never the president and rarely his top aides. That is why Cabinet officials like Vilsack are always taking "responsibility," even if they know they may face the rap alone like Mary Astor in "The Maltese Falcon."

But Cheryl Cook (and again we have only Sherrod's word for it) claimed that the White House needed an immediate resignation to deflate the story before Glenn Beck went on Fox News. Needless to say, Beck has been reveling on air about his purported powers over the Obama White House. As a result of Cook's effort to shift the blame for the firing to the White House (or maybe as a result of Cook's politically naïve candor), Obama became inescapably implicated in the political embarrassment over Sherrod's treatment.

If an e-mail message had gotten through, if Tom Vilsack had not panicked, if Shirley Sherrod had been granted the dignity of a face-to-face meeting, the news this week might have revolved around Wall Street reform and not bureaucratic incompetence. The only good news is that Shirley Sherrod has miraculously survived the 21st-century American version of a political execution -- forced resignation by BlackBerry.

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