Tilting at Windmills

May/June 2012 When the 800-pound gorilla speaks …

By Charles Peters

You may recall the firing of Shirley Sherrod. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, dismissed her hours after a video purporting to show her making a racist remark was posted by the late right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart. The White House denied having been involved. Vilsack agreed, saying he had made the decision on his own. It later turned out that Sherrod was innocent. The Breitbart video had been edited to give a false impression of what she said.

Recently, 2,000 pages of internal e-mails concerning the event were released by the administration. In the eighth paragraph of a Washington Post story about the messages there is what I suspect is a major clue as to what really happened, and maybe even the smoking gun. When informed of the video by an official at Agriculture, Reid Cherlin, then a White House spokesman, responded by inquiring what USDA was going to say about the matter and asking, “Has she been fired? I’ll alert folks here.”

At some agencies—Treasury is an example—frequent contact with the White House is the norm, and such a message would barely cause a ripple, let alone a wave. But in a place like Agriculture, where contact from Pennsylvania Avenue is relatively rare, words like Cherlin’s can rocket around the agency with incredible speed. As the message is repeated from one person to another, there is a temptation to make it sound more and more dramatic, so that gradually “Has she been fired?” will be transformed into “The White House wants her out of here pronto.”

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.