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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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If anyone learned anything it's that watching FOX is the same as reading the comics in your newspaper.

July 24 2010 at 12:31 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

The way I see it is that the Washington Post reported that the guy in charge at Fox News warned that Fox should act carefully in the reporting of the matter. This proves that Fox was not going to break the story before some sort of proof of credibility was found. When Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign and was criticized by the White House and the NAACP the road was clear for Fox to release the video.

July 24 2010 at 12:21 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to joe's comment

johnblack Of course it was released before Sherrod resigned but it was released by Breitbart not by Fox.

July 24 2010 at 7:11 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

On Thursday night I watched CNN-Anderson Cooper and again last night did same. Basically an almost word for word repeat of the first show except for the bit about the approaching storm heading to the Gulf. I watch FOX as well. Both are equally rotten as far as spending money to report real news. Both stations have such political agendas or lack real reporters who will cover the rest of the news. Their is new of importance to cover besides our political mess. You have to go to LINK or BBC to get a bit of news on what's happening elsewhere. This story is inexpensive and easy to cover and has taken precedence over Haiti and the Gulf. Thank goodness Al Gore invented the internet or we'd really be in the dark.Bot CNN and FOX are more interested in doing each other in than in real reporting. Maybe they are just cheap and once they get something like this story their like dogs with bones and chew it to death!

July 24 2010 at 12:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I agree with much of what Mr. Shapiro stated with his article, but lesson # 4 is too generic and failure to practice lesson #3 is the major reason why.
His assessment that the tape was doctored ("doctored the tape that right-wing attack artist Andrew Breitbart ballyhooed to erroneously and maliciously claim that Ms. Sherrod believed in reverse racism")implies that the tape was altered rather than truncated leaving out the full presentation. At the stopping point of the truncated tape, one thing is absolutely clear. There were a lot of folks,most likely members, at the NAACP meeting who laughed and cheered the sentiment of reverse discrimination. The tape definitely is evidence of hypocrisy regarding racism embedded in the NAACP as it and many of its members condemn others for racism real or imagined.
Also a review of the tape beyond the truncation shows that Ms.Sherrod overcame her racial prejudice to help the white farmer. I applaud her for not acting vengefully in response to the racist murder of her father. However, the full tape is also evidence that we now live in an environment in which Government employees representing the Government and serving as an extension of a political party as if that were acceptable. Twenty-four years ago when Ms. Sherrod was confronted with having to help a white farmer and for years afterward, she would not have told the story with the same tones and epilogue if dissing wealth (particularly white wealth) where not so popular. President Obama, his Administration, and Democratic leadership continue to blame President Bush for the mess the US is in even though Obama has been president for 18 months and the Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress for almost 4 years and 1 house over 6 years.
Maybe subordinates shouldn't blame the White House or the folks in power, but I do. Hopefully, the environment will change by November and Government employees will be encouraged to serve all US citizens without regard for race, gender, or party affiliation.

July 24 2010 at 10:13 AM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

How come the people responsible for character assisination via the National media get a complete pass on this. Broadcasting a misrepresentation of the truth to create your own biased version of the story is at the root of the problem here. The half truths broadcasting policies need to be stopped. Defimation of character is a serious and deliberate offense that should set off legal action and stiff fines. I am old enough to remember when television and all other forms of major media had to be sure that what they presented was accurate, or suffer the consequences. Do we now accept that TV stations can simply air dmamging lies, or half truths and get away with it? The administration DID screw up. FOX News presented the false, misleading evidence that set the whole thing in motion. It's time to put a stop to slander in the National media!

July 24 2010 at 9:53 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to johndson's comment

People rushed to act becaue they were afraid they would be charged with dragging their feet due to Sherrod's race. This has been part of the projection of people that still can't believe a black President is a fact in these United States. Had Bush or even Clinton been preseident, Cheryl Cook could have waited until Ms. Sherrod returned to the office to speak with her instead of the Blackberry resignation. Ms. Sherrod is right to be leary of returning to her job. She has worked with people who have not paid attention to her body of work nor her character. They are only able to process she is black. They are just more educated versions of the farmer in her story who needed to first establish his superiority to her. She is still the gracious, stalwart women using the higher road.

July 24 2010 at 9:42 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
Michael Keohane

I sympathize with Ms. Sherrod. She was not fairly treated by the administration in this matter. Although the first clip did show her making remarks that most people would deem unacceptable from any civil servant, the administration should have viewed the entire video and realized that, taken in context, her speech shows her moving away from her original beliefs. President Obama and his administration are too often guilty of "acting before they know the facts." It is a bad habit for any administration to cultivate. Howeveer, the main stream media continues to miss the major point of Brietbart's message - it is not what Ms. Sherrod was saying but how the NAACP delegatesd were reacting to her tale.

July 24 2010 at 7:16 AM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply
Hello Joe

Everyone is missing the real story on Mrs. Sherrod. Its not wether the White house ordered the firing of Mrs. Sherrod or wether Mr. Vilsak acted on his own is not even about Mrs. Cook Incompetence.

The story here is about Government Management capability.

Its about (0nce again) Government proving their incompetence, insensitivity, their horrible management practices. America better think twice before they allow Governmnet (no matter republican, democrat, or independant) to manage Health Care.

July 24 2010 at 6:45 AM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply

Well for the government to fire her right off the bat, you would have to think they were doing their job properly. Wrong they still have not got it right.Its one mistake after another with this administration.

July 23 2010 at 7:28 PM Report abuse +95 rate up rate down Reply
Linda G.

It is an unfortunate set of circumstances that set this ball a rolling..and it all started with the malicious intent of Breitbart to show that the NAACP had racist in their ranks.. to counter the charge of racist in the tea party brought on by the NAACP.. ha-ha it backfired.. and guess what Breitbart.. God does not like ugly.. anyone with half a brain knows that the tea party sprang up out of fear and disbelief that a "Black" man became president of these United States. get over it.. it's a done deal.. and Amercia is better off for it. put the Republicans back in power and see the reversal of fortune for Middle Class America.. it will be a duplication of the Cheney/Bush fiasco..because these Republicans in office now are the same ones who were around to rubber stamp everything that Bush wanted .. SO I pray that Breitbart is sued.. it would be a fitting end to his evil intent.

July 23 2010 at 12:25 PM Report abuse -120 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Linda G.'s comment

Civil lawsuits of this kind are what drive insurance rates up. For there to be liability, Breibart's airing that tape must have harmed her. He didn't harm her, her own boss did, by jumping the gun and firing her. He should be held to a higher standard than Breibart, in that he is responsible for his employees. As far as I'm concerned he should have demanded she come in immediately and talk about this. His actions tell me that he must not have thought much of her to jump like that. If he had been my boss, I would sue him for wrongful termanation. Breibart merely played a tape. Fox and other news outlets played the tape. Where is there harm? She garnered the adoration of about every person in the United States.

July 23 2010 at 5:42 PM Report abuse +39 rate up rate down Reply

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