White House keeps Obama above racial fray
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The White House struggled mightily Wednesday to make things right with an aggrieved Shirley Sherrod -- but it is working nearly as hard to distance President Barack Obama and his top aides from the racially tinged firing fiasco.
Administration officials unanimously leveled the finger of blame at Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday for sacking Sherrod on "insufficient evidence" -- even as West Wing officials admitted they did nothing to stop Sherrod from being let go on the basis of a single, shabbily edited video clip.
"There was no pressure from the White House. This was my decision," said Vilsack, who agreed to reverse his decision and offer Sherrod a job after White House officials pressured him to change course Tuesday night.
But even while lavishing plaudits and apologies on the 62-year-old Sherrod, administration officials fiercely countered Sherrod's claim that a Vilsack aide told her the West Wing ordered her firing out of fear the video would anger whites.
"This was, as you heard Secretary Vilsack say yesterday, a decision that was made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who refused even to say which senior Obama aides have been involved in the process.
"The president was briefed yesterday and has been briefed, obviously, today as well," added Gibbs, who said the White House was informed but not "consulted" about the firing.
Obama himself hasn't spoken publicly or released a personal statement on the dust-up. It's not clear if he plans to call Sherrod to apologize, as other administration officials have.
The incident underscored the paradoxical reality that race, an issue Obama dealt with so deftly during the 2008 campaign, has proven to be an unexpected and persistent stumbling block. That point was vividly illustrated a year ago -- when Obama walked back his remark that Cambridge, Mass. police acted "stupidly" in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, a leading African-American scholar.
Sherrod herself seemed to recognize Obama's unique dilemma during a TV appearance Wednesday, remarking on the irony of the first black president presiding over the firing of the first black woman to coordinate federal government efforts on behalf of Georgia's farmers.
Gibbs left open the possibility the president might call Sherrod to offer his own apology -- and revealed that Obama was first told about Sherrod's firing early Tuesday as a fait accompli.
Obama, who initially was told only about the part of the speech in which Sherrod admits to not putting her "full force" behind the white farmer, voiced no objections. Later, he was briefed on the whole video -- and called for a review of her case, Gibbs said.
Obama "talked about the fact that a disservice had been done here and that an injustice had happened -- and that because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be undertaken," he said.
But Gibbs, speaking at his daily briefing, repeatedly brushed aside questions about the White House's role in the firing. He refused to say why no one objected to the decision -- and even to name the senior administration officials who were first told of Vilsack's decision late Monday.
"I think there are a number of people that are responsible," he said. "I think there are a number of people responsible at the USDA," Gibbs said. "I think, you know, I think there are a number of people that have been involved in this situation at many different levels and at many different venues that will, as a result of this, take a look at the actions and decisions that were made."
Gibbs also sidestepped suggestions that the administration was too quick to abandon African-American subordinates, including former Obama environmental aide Van Jones.
On Wednesday, a red-faced Vilsack called Sherrod to offer an emotional apology -- and an unspecified promotion if she'd come back to work.
Two days earlier, Vilsack forced her summary resignation after a video surfaced showing the African-American grandmother appearing to admit discriminating against a white farmer in 1987. The clip turned out to be part of a larger speech in which Sherrod explained that the incident changed her racial outlook -- and prompted her to work hard on behalf of the farmer.
"I didn't take the time I should have, and as a result a good woman has gone through a very difficult period," Vilsack said. "I did not think before I acted. ... She's been put through hell."
Sherrod, a rural agriculture coordinator in Georgia -- and a fixture on cable talk show sets over the past 48 hours -- was "extraordinarily gracious," according to Vilsack.
But she hasn't said whether she'll take the job.
"I accept their apology. I'm bigger than some of them. I can move beyond this," Sherrod told CNN after watching Gibbs offer a similar administration-wide mea culpa.
Later, she said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, "They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it."
Vilsack said he would conduct a review of the incident, starting with the department's e-mail system, revealing that Sherrod's e-mails explaining her side of the story prior to her firing were sent to the wrong addresses and weren't seen until the story exploded.
"She sent an e-mail to me which I did not get," he said. "We did not discover it until after the fact."
He also met Wednesday with the Congressional Black Caucus, and the group's chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), said, "When one makes a mistake, we expect an apology. And he did that."
"This is a moment our nation needs to really understand that we have to begin to discuss race," said Lee, who added that despite Obama's election, this is not a post-racial era. "In many ways, race has been swept under the rug."
If White House officials were in a repentant mood Wednesday, the atmosphere was markedly different a day earlier, when officials believed they had nipped a negative news story in the bud.
According to administration officials, deputy chief of staff Jim Messina praised the initial response to the incident at the regular 8:30 a.m. staff meeting Tuesday. The sources differed on the substance of Messina's praise but agreed that he applauded the speed of White House communications in response to the flap, which was driven by a 2-minute version of the Sherrod video posted to Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website.
One source, who is unhappy with the administration's handling of the incident, paraphrased Messina's remarks: "We could have waited all day -- we could have had a media circus -- but we took decisive action, and it's a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere."
But two other senior officials present at the meeting, who responded to a call to the White House press office, said the gist of Messina's words had been inaccurately conveyed to POLITICO and that Messina -- a top political operative and senior manager -- was merely speaking in his capacity as deputy chief of staff for operations and "cheerleader" to boost staffers' morale.
Messina was merely praising the White House staff for "communicating well, sharing well, basically rising to the occasion" on the Sherrod story, one official said. "It was an institutional or procedural point."
First Published July 22, 2010 12:00 am