Fired USDA official receives apologies from White House, Vilsack

The USDA official's firing came after a conservative blogger posted her truncated comments to the NAACP that, 24 years ago, she didn't help a white farmer as much as she could have.

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By Karen Tumulty and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ousted Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, who was portrayed as a racist in a selectively excerpted Internet video, on Wednesday achieved something almost unheard of in overheated Washington: swift and utter vindication.

Two days after Sherrod was fired from her job overseeing rural development in Georgia, both the White House and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her. Vilsack also offered her another unspecified position with the department. Sherrod said she would consider it.

"This is a good woman," Vilsack said. "She's been put through hell. I could have done and should have done a better job. I'll learn from that experience. I want this agency and department to learn from this experience, and I want us to be stronger for it."

He was far from alone in vowing to learn from the episode that began when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative activist and blogger, posted to his site the video from a March 27 speech Sherrod gave at an NAACP event. By the time it played out two days later, it had vividly revealed how Washington's political culture is driven by impulse and self-interest -- often instead of judgment.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at his daily briefing, which CNN broadcast on a split screen with a live shot of Sherrod watching from its studio.

In the snippet of video on Breitbart's Web site, Sherrod, who is black, admitted to having been reluctant to help a white farmer who sought her aid 24 years before, when she was working for a nonprofit agency established to help black farmers.

What the clip did not show was the larger point Sherrod had made, one that was the opposite of the perception it created. From that episode, she told the NAACP audience, she had recognized her own prejudice, moved beyond it to an understanding that "there is no difference between us," and ultimately had helped the white farmer save his land.

In the reaction that followed the posting of the video, Sherrod not only was fired from her USDA post but was denounced by the Obama administration, the media and even the civil rights organization whose local chapter had invited her to speak.

Sherrod mounted her own defense in a series of appearances on CNN, and the farmer, Roger Spooner, and his family backed her up. But not until the NAACP released a video of the full speech Tuesday night did it become clear how misleading the excerpt was.

In an interview Wednesday, Breitbart said he first learned of Sherrod's speech in April, when a source he declined to name sent him a DVD copy of it. But the DVD did not work. He said he forgot about the speech until last week, when the NAACP denounced what it called "racist elements" of the "tea party" movement.

Angry at the NAACP's move, Breitbart said he contacted the source again asking for copies of the speech and obtained two edited clips over the weekend.

After Breitbart first referred to the existence of the video clip during a radio interview last Thursday, Sherrod tried to contact Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan through e-mail accounts the department had created for employee feedback. But they are checked infrequently, a spokesman said.

As a result, USDA aides did not learn of it until Monday, after Breitbart had posted them.

Obama officials rejected accusations that they overreacted out of fear of inciting their conservative critics.

Presidential aides insisted that no one at the White House pressed Vilsack to dismiss Sherrod, despite her claims that they had. But when the facts became clear, and the public view of Sherrod flipped from vilification to sympathy, the White House let it be known that someone there -- it wouldn't say who or when -- pressed the agriculture secretary to reconsider.

Vilsack was especially sensitive to the issue. Since taking over, he has made it a priority to rectify the injustices of a department with a long history of racial discrimination.

After publicly apologizing to Sherrod, Vilsack met with Congressional Black Caucus members on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon. According to a spokeswoman, he was there to apologize and to listen.


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