Shirley Sherrod: The 'No Distractions' Distraction

How could the White House have screwed up so badly in the case of Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia USDA official who Wednesday received an apology from the Obama administration (through Robert Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack)?

Sherrod was the victim of a smear by the right-wing agent provocateur Andrew Breitbart and his fellow travelers at Fox News. (Yes, that side has adopted some Leninist tactics, as conservative antitax activist Grover Norquist has admitted over the years.) They took a two-and-a-half-minute clip from Sherrod's address to the NAACP and used it to depict her as a black racist who discriminated years ago against a white farmer. It turns out the farmer thought Sherrod had been a terrific help, and a full review of Sherrod's speech suggests that, far from being a racist, she had honestly (and successfully) worked through the complex racial preconceptions we all carry around in our heads.

The NAACP, which says it was "snookered" by Breitbart, acted first and asked questions later. This gave Vilsack and the White House cover to do the same. Only when Sherrod was allowed to defend herself on legitimate news programs (i.e., not on Fox) was the administration's rash and unjust firing fully exposed. So-called journalists didn't do the most elemental checking before running with the story.

The question is, why? Are the president and his team cowed by right-wingers? Doubtful. It seems more likely that the White House's astonishingly ham-handed response to this matter was the result of overreacting to criticism that Obama has suffered recently for his slow political reflexes. Combine that with a firm policy of "no distractions" and you have a recipe for a political hash and serious embarrassment.

To understand this story, you have to go back to the sacking of Van Jones, a midlevel White House aide of little importance (he worked on weatherizing inner-city homes) who was pilloried for days last year for signing a 2002 we-had-it-coming-on-9/11 petition. Fox made it seem as though this was the most critical issue facing America. The White House rightly concluded that Jones had to go and regretted having let the topic dominate Fox News and leach into the rest of the press. Better to have cut their losses earlier, aides concluded in retrospect. Then on Christmas Day with the case of the "underpants bomber" and again in May with the BP oil spill, Obama was legitimately criticized for not moving quickly enough to reassure the country and get on top of the story.

So now we come to the week of July 19, which was supposed to be all about the signing Wednesday of the financial-regulation bill, the largest piece of legislation regulating markets in 75 years. A secondary theme for the White House was the difference between the parties on extending unemployment benefits. In other words, real issues that affect real people, not cable flaps of little or no lasting consequence. So the White House had hoped to cut its losses on the Sherrod story.

"No distractions" has been Obama's mantra from the beginning. For most of 2009 and early 2010, this meant nothing was to distract from health care. It's not that Obama doesn't think race issues are significant—he has no trouble identifying himself as a proud African-American president—but he gets very irritated at having a racial conversation forced on him, especially by right-wingers. He wants to decide for himself when and where to discuss sensitive issues. But that's where Obama the control freak runs up against the realities of Washington. He can't always control the timing of public discussion, and when his administration neglects basic staff research (not to mention basic fairness to Sherrod), he looks lame. The policy of "no distractions" led to a big distraction—and another example of how the supposedly slick Chicago political operators are often all thumbs.

Jonathan Alter is the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One.