Sherrod Situation Troubling for Vilsack, Administration

July 22, 2010 02:18 PM

The firing of Shirley Sherrod has catapulted USDA into the headlines and specifically, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In a whirlwind of activity since the story initially broke early this week, what Vilsack likely hopes is a final chapter in this saga played out Wednesday in Washington.

It all began with an edited version of Sherrod's remarks made to an NAACP meeting. The edited video was first released by conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, and subsequently picked up by Fox News.

Fox News and Breitbart share in the blame for letting the story develop in the first place. But that still doesn't explain why there wasn't a more-thorough review of the matter before the decision was made to fire Sherrod on the part of the Obama administration.

Following an apology issued by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in which he correctly noted that the administration didn't ask the right questions, he also sought to toss some of the blame off on news organizations for not asking the right questions, Vilsack met with the press to give an update and presumably to allow them to ask those "right" questions.

Vilsack is shouldering the blame for this miscue. And how it happened and unfolded still is confounding those inside and outside the Beltway in Washington. He stressed the decision was his and his alone -- attempting to shield the White House from any involvement. But that doesn't square with the version related by Sherrod who maintained her departure had been sought by the White House.

Vilsack's apology an offer of another job to Sherrod was relayed to reporters via a hastily called news conference at USDA's Washington headquarters. How hasty? The media advisory sent out to alert of the coming statement by Vilsack didn't even have a number -- that was listed as "pending." And Sherrod's response to the job offer -- she'll think about it.

Vilsack's performance was viewed by many as almost unsettling. One contact called the event "painful" to watch while the New York Times characterized Vilsack as looking "stricken" as he talked about the developments.

While the racial issues that this situation brought to the forefront once again are certainly troubling, the basic lack of management skill in handling the matter perhaps are even more astounding. After all, isn't it a basic tenet of management that before firing an employee, you get all the facts first? That didn't happen and now Vilsack and the Obama administration are faced with the unpleasant task of trying to "fix" a situation that shouldn't have happened in the first place.

He has pledged to "learn" from this experience. That's good. But one would think that being in a cabinet post for more than two years now would have provided him the experience to not make this kind of misstep. Now the damage control is underway and that certainly leaves Mr. Vilsack looking not so much like a former governor but rather someone who let politics get in the way of common sense. It's a shame that his time as governor didn't have him better prepared to avoid this self-created problem.

And this underscores just how politically charged the atmosphere has become in Washington, as if we needed another reminder.


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