Sherrod fallout: Obama exhorts aides, Cabinet members to govern with more deliberative style
President Barack Obama has ordered a more patient, deliberative style of governance from his aides and Cabinet members in the wake of a convulsive week surrounding the ouster of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod.
After telling Sherrod he regretted her forced resignation over racial remarks she made to an NAACP audience, Obama said in a nationally broadcast network interview he believes Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “jumped the gun” in sacking the veteran Georgian federal worker.
A furor erupted this week over a conservative blogger’s posting of portions of a speech Sherrod gave in which she told of giving short shrift attention 24 years ago to the pleas for financial aid by a poor white farmer. Sherrod is black, and the operator of the website BigGovernment.com posted a portion of her speech. The blogger, Andrew Breitbart, said he did so to illustrate racism within the NAACP, which earlier accused the tea party of having racist elements.
The incident dramatized how the nation’s first black president has occasionally struggled with racial tensions since he took office over a year and a half ago, after saying repeatedly during his campaign that he wanted to bridge America’s racial divide.
“One of the things I shared with Ms. Sherrod was the fact that the stories that she was telling about her own biases and overcoming them, those were actually good leasons for all of us to learn, because we all have our own biases,” Obama told ABC in an interview. “I wrote this in my own book.”
“There was times when I had stereotypes, both blacks and whites, that you had to work through, and you had to admit to yourself,” he said. “We should acknowledge the enormous progress that we’ve made since the time Shirley Sherrod was a child in the Jim Crow South. I’m sitting here as a testament to this myself, as president.”
Sherrod argued repeatedly that the Internet posting took her speech out of context, and that the talk actually was about racial reconciliation.
The White House on Thursday morning played a one-way game of telephone tag with the fired Sherrod, even as she hop-scotched from network to network saying it was time she heard from Obama.
When the president finally reached her, he passed along “his regrets” for her horrible week, the White House said, and urged her to accept Vilsack’s offer to return to his department.
“He didn’t say I’m sorry in those words,” Sherrod said Friday of Obama in a CNN interview. “And I really didn’t want to hear the president of the United States say I’m sorry to Shirley Sherrod. Just by simply calling me, I felt it was in a way saying ‘I’m sorry.’ He didn’t have to do it.”
Obama, according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, urged Sherrod to transform “this misfortune” into a chance to use her life experiences to help people.
Obama had avoided direct involvement in the public spectacle that accompanied Sherrod’s ouster from Vilsack’s agency. Once it became clear that the speech in question was advocating racial accommodation, not confrontation, Vilsack apologized to her and offered her a new job. Gibbs also apologized publicly “for the entire administration.”
Sherrod says she hasn’t decided whether she will accept the invitation to come back to the Agriculture Department. But she did accept the apologies.
“This has been a whirlwind and I need a little down time, and I really haven’t seen the offer in writing yet,” she told reporters.
In an excerpt of an ABC News interview broadcast Thursday night, Obama said Vilsack had been too hasty in pushing Sherrod out.
“He jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles,” Obama said.
The president said he has instructed “my team” to make sure “that we’re focusing on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment. We have to take our time and think these issues through.”
Sherrod repeatedly denied that her comments carried on the Internet were racist, and the NAACP Ã¢â‚¬â€ which had at first condemned her remarks, then later apologized Ã¢â‚¬â€ posted the full 43-minute video showing the entire speech. The farmer in question also did interviews and said Sherrod had eventually helped him save his farm.
Of Breitbart, the blogger, she said: “He was willing to destroy me … in order to try to destroy the NAACP.” She said she might consider suing Breitbart for defamation.
This video is from ABC’s Good Morning America, broadcast July 23, 2010.