It was a scene right out of Bonfire of the Vanities, but with an interesting twist. In the book and in the movie, each of the characters performed according to stereotype, while cynical audiences and readers roared. In this farce, an African-American woman, serving at the pleasure of the president, was captured on YouTube confessing to having dispensed less aid to a white farmer than she might have on the basis of his race. The NAACP, singed by criticism for calling the Tea Party leadership to account for racist epithets uttered by unidentified attendees at its rallies, anxious to demonstrate its own sense of fairness, criticizes the political appointee. The Obama administration, under criticism for the attorney general’s decision not to prosecute the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation, and jittery over the diminished standing the president enjoys among white voters, presses the official to resign.
Then, as the late Paul Harvey would have said, came the “rest of the story.” According to this narrative, the official’s YouTube remarks had been selectively edited. She appears on CNN and says not only that the now famous incident happened 24 years ago, but that she had assisted the farmer after all. She then relates how she had overcome her own prejudice against whites and cited her actions as an example of long-overdue racial reconciliation and healing. The farmer and his wife go on camera and credit her for having helped them save their farm.
But for the circumstances of the official’s firing, this might have been the end of the story-with perhaps due criticism for the media for once again, putting on the air what fell into its hands rather than conducting its own research. The now former official, Shirley Sherrod, further told CNN that a high ranking official in Obama’s Agriculture Department called her three times to demand that she resign. She relates that her superior told her that the White House wanted her out because conservative commentator Glenn Beck was about to do a story about her. Sherrod complies. Hiding its tracks, the White House puts the Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack before the cameras to justify what he terms his decision. After enduring several hours of media pounding, the White House, egg still on its face, lets it known they want Vilsack to reverse his decision.
On the first anniversary of the now famous “beer summit,” which the president called to extricate himself from the controversy into which he had injected himself (the one concerning the African-American professor at Harvard and the Cambridge cop who arrested him), the president again looks foolish. And once again, the cause was how he and his team comport themselves when the issue at hand is race.
The administration’s actions suggest that fear of media criticism, rather than facts and the national interest, too often determine its actions. As a result, we witness the paradox of a president, elected by 53 percent of the vote, appearing to hand over the keys to the White House to Glenn Beck. Not long ago, Obama acolytes said that Beck and his confreres on the right spoke for Republican Party. Today, Obama’s critics snidely, but rightly, may ask whether Beck and company speak for the President of the United States.
How might Obama extricate himself from the situation in which he finds himself in advance of the inevitable investigations that might turn him and his team into laughing stocks? If he can put hubris and pride aside long enough to utter them, he should take to the Rose Garden and say the following words:
“I want to apologize to the American people for the comedy of errors my administration has put them through over the last 48 hours. Beset with a series of what I consider unfair criticisms of this administration by some in the media, my advisers panicked. Rather than ascertain what Shirley Sherrod actually said about her experiences growing up in the south, they, like the media, focused on excerpts they saw on YouTube In their rush to do what they thought was the right thing they panicked. Concerned that I might be criticized for tolerating what the YouTube excerpts suggested was racial prejudice in my administration, they pressed Ms. Sherrod to resign. Thanks to outstanding reporting on the part of CNN, my administration was proven to have fallen victim to a hoax. In the process, they did a great injustice to an honorable woman and exemplary public servant.
“I hereby apologize to Ms. Sherrod. I would like to see nothing better than to see her reinstated to her post, should she still wish to serve in this my administration. Given what she has had to endure in recent days, I can understand why she might not want anything to do with this White House again. But I ask her to give us a second chance.
“As Ms. Sherrod ponders her decision, I am asking my chief of staff to launch an investigation as to who in this administration concluded on the scantiest evidence that Ms. Sherrod should resign and pressed the Agriculture Department to bring that result about. That person or persons can spare Rahm a lot of time by coming forth immediately with their own resignations in hand.
“I have also asked my chief of staff to present me with a plan, no later than Monday, as to how we might best reorganize communications and political operations at the White House. The American people need to have confidence that when the president or his aides act, they do so on the basis of fact and not appearances. Toward that end, we will be changing personnel as well as procedures.
“Finally, I want all the children listening to my words right now to know that, like them, presidents can and do make mistakes. And when they do, they admit them, correct what they can, and move on with the nation’s business. Now, I suggest that everyone else get back to work. Thank you.”