White House stumbles on firing of USDA official 

The Obama administration was rapidly walking back the firing of a USDA employee -- apologizing and saying "a disservice was done" to Shirley Sherrod.

"One of the great lessons we will take away from this is to ask all the questions first," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Sherrod, a Georgia-based U.S. Department of Agriculture employee, was forced to resign after conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart posted a video segment of a speech in which Sherrod, who is black, described how she resisted helping a white farmer facing bankruptcy, in part because he acted "superior."

The subsequent release of her full speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Georgia shows that Sherrod used the anecdote, a 24-year-old story of her time at a nonprofit agency, to show how racial bias is wrong. She eventually helped the farmer keep his farm.

But between the time the first clip appeared and the full-length version surfaced more than 24 hours later, the story mushroomed. Sherrod was forced to resign, in a decision initially supported by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The NAACP also reacted swiftly, initially calling Sherrod "shameful" before effectively retracting its condemnation and saying the matter was under review.

Both the White House and the NAACP blamed the media for jumping on the story before all the facts were known.

"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," Gibbs said.

Vilsack, who called Sherrod to apologize, took full responsibility for the matter and said he offered her a new, unspecified job in the department, which she asked for time to think about.

"I expressed my deep regret and apology to her and to her family," Vilsack said, adding that the White House did not influence his decision to dismiss Sherrod.

"This was my decision, and it was a decision I regret having made in haste," Vilsack said. "There was no pressure from the White House."

For her part, Sherrod spent much of her day on cable television, where she told CNN that she wasn't sure she wanted her job back. Sherrod, 62, was director of rural development in Georgia for the Department of Agriculture.

"If they had just taken the time to -- even without looking at the tape -- to look at me, to look at what I've stood for, to look at what I've done since I've actually been at the department, I don't think they would have been so quick to do what they did and so insistent," she said. "To now come back and say, 'Well, we're willing to look at this,' it definitely is a little bittersweet."

It was one year ago that Obama criticized the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Mass., in a racially fused flare-up that ended with the famous Rose Garden beer summit.

In September, 2009, Obama's environmental jobs adviser, Van Jones, was forced to resign after Republican lawmakers complained about his history of political activism.

Gibbs, asked repeatedly whether the administration tends to overreact to criticism from Republicans and conservative pundits, said "no."

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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