By Chris Cillizza
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B02
Remember that old adage that the secretary of agriculture should be seen but not heard? (You know that one, right?)
Tom Vilsack broke that rule this week with his dismissal of, doubling down on dismissal of, apology to and attempted rehiring of (it reads like the 12 stages of grief) a midlevel Department of Agriculture employee named Shirley Sherrod.
The story -- in short -- goes like this. On Monday, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart posted on his Web site a video featuring Sherrod, the department's director of rural development in Georgia, making comments about her reluctance to aid a white farmer because of his race.
Sherrod, who is black, was quickly asked to step aside by Vilsack, who said the episode complicated his attempts to "turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA."
But facts are pesky things. As the story evolved, it became clear that Sherrod's comments were taken badly out of context -- she was using the tale of her initial hesitation to help the farmer decades ago, long before she joined the USDA, to make a broader point about race and class -- and that Vilsack (and just about everyone else in Washington) had condemned Sherrod wrongly.
By midweek, the White House was in full mea culpa mode, with press secretary Robert Gibbs (last week's Worst Week winner) telling reporters that "a disservice was done, an apology was owed." Adding to the surreal nature of the saga: Sherrod was watching Gibbs's news conference live on CNN.
Following Gibbs's lead, Vilsack put himself up for a public flogging, acknowledging that he "could have and should have done a better job" and expressing "profound regret" to Sherrod, to whom he offered a new position with the USDA. (Sherrod has yet to say whether she will accept the gig, despite chatting with President Obama about it on Thursday.)
And, just when Vilsack had humbled himself as much as anyone thought he could, Obama decided to humble him some more. In an interview with ABC, Obama said Vilsack had "jumped the gun" in the Sherrod incident. "We have to take our time and think these issues through," the president admonished. Ouch.
Tom Vilsack, for trying to put out a fire that wasn't even lit, you got burned. And you had the Worst Week in Washington. Congrats, or something.
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