Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that although questions were repeatedly raised about what Shirley Sherrod had actually said in a speech that referenced a White farmer two decades earlier, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials hastily pressed for her resignation because they were obsessed with trying to limit damage created by a right-wing blogger who had misrepresented her remarks. Once officials realized that Sherrod's comments had been taken out of context, they tried to recover by developing talking points to be used when interacting with the media and controlling the damage by reaching out to Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Hundreds of e-mails were released to the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington bureau last week in response to a Freedom of Information request. The documents show frantic behind-the-scenes dealings of top USDA officials. Although the White House contends it was not involved in the decision to force Sherrod's resignation, it is clear that they closely monitored developments and later complimented the department for moving quickly against Sherrod.
At 11:18 am on July 19, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a 2 and a half minute excerpt from a 43-minute speech that left the impression that Sherrod was discriminating against a White farmer in Georgia. "…What he didn't know, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him," she said.
At 1:40 p.m., the Fox Nation website re-posted the clip under the headline, "Caught on Tape: Obama Official Discriminates Against a White Farmer." The speech was given 24 years earlier, long before Sherrod became a federal employee.
According to a timeline created by the USDA, at 1:56 p.m., Wayne Maloney, a department press aide, sent an e-mail to Chris Mather, the director of public affairs, saying: "I was just informed of a video of the Georgia State Director that was posted on the Internet earlier this afternoon. It speaks for itself and you need to watch it right away."
Mather sent an e-mail to Chief of Staff Karen Ross and others saying "THIS IS HORRIBLE." He included a link to Breitbart's video.
At 3:06 p.m., Carole Jett, deputy chief of staff, sent an e-mail to Cheryl Cook, a deputy secretary, and others saying, "Sherliy [sic] Sherrod is on tape and you need to see/hear immediately…We need to take immediate action."
USDA Congressional liaison Krysta Harden sent an e-mail at 3:32 p.m. to Jett, Mather, and others at the department saying, "The S [Secretary Tom Vilsack] is absolutely sick and mad over the Sherrod issue. He wants her immediately on adm leave."
Deputy Secretary Cheryl Cook called Sherrod on her cell phone at 3:38 p.m. to notify her she was being placed on administrative leave.
At 4:04 p.m., Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager sent a memo Vilsack saying, "We have just seen the video of George [sic] State Director Shirley Sherrod and are deeply disturbed. Cheryl [Cook] has put her on administrative leave pending further investigation." He noted, "Shirley explained to Cheryl that this piece of tape shows only one small part of a longer story she told of her personal transformation beyond race…She said there is a copy of the entire speech, and Cheryl asked her to provide it as quickly as possible."
Harden, the Congressional liaison, sent an e-mail at 4:16 p.m. to Mather, Ross, and others saying, "This is awful. If he [Vilsak] can right out fire her he will or ask for her resignation."
Cook called again at 4:42 p.m., approximately, three hours after the department first learned of the video excerpt, and asked Sherrod if she were willing to resign.
At 5:56 p.m., Cook called Sherrod and asked her to resign by the end of the day.
Cook called Sherrod a fourth time at 6:35 p.m. and asked that she immediately e-mail her resignation.
At 6:55 p.m., while en route from her home in Albany, Ga. to Athens, Ga., Sherrod pulled to the side of the road and submitted her resignation to Cook via her BlackBerry.
"I feel so disappointed that the Secretary and President let a misrepresentation of my words on the part of th [sic] Tea Party to be the reason to ask me to resign," she wrote. "Please look at the tape and see that I use the story from 1986 to show people that the issue is not about race but about those who have versus those who do not."
The following day, July 20, White House cabinet liaison Christoper Lu, sent an e-mail to Ross, Jett and others: "Just wanted you to know that this dismissal came up at our morning senior staff meeting today. Everyone complimented USDA on how quickly you took this action. It's an unpleasant story, but getting on top of this fast blunts any traction it will get. Thanks for the great efforts."
Later in the morning, USDA officials were operating off of talking points crafted to provide answers to questions that might be raised by the media.
Q: Did she [Sherrod] explain the real story to you?
A. She said she was taken out of context but we have not seen the entire video. We have a duty to instill confidence in the American people that we are fair service providers. Comments made by Mrs. Sherrod, even if taken out of context, undermine that trust.
After Sherrod began defending herself on television, one memo noted that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel placed a call to Secretary Vilsack at 8:35 p.m. "Rahm is calling Secy now," the memo noted.
Memos noted that Visack spoke with Jesse Jackson and reached out to other "potential black pastor validators."
John Berge, deputy assistant secretary for congressional relations, wrote to Karen Ross, the chief of staff: "Can S [Secretary] call [Jim] Clyburn today? It'll be a while, but we may need him to. We need his help with CBC outreach."
Joshua DuBois, Obama's religious liaison, was asked if he would help the department with a "tricky situation." He replied, "Just let me know what you need."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.