Does Obama need more black people around him?

Post-Sherrod, Jim Clyburn says yes. I say he needs more people who know civil rights lessons, whatever their race

Published July 25, 2010 4:25AM (EDT)

Shirley Sherrod answers questions during an interview at her home on Friday, July 23, 2010 in Albany, Ga. Sherrod was fired from her job at the Agriculture Department amid accusations of racism. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (AP)
Shirley Sherrod answers questions during an interview at her home on Friday, July 23, 2010 in Albany, Ga. Sherrod was fired from her job at the Agriculture Department amid accusations of racism. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (AP)

I'm on CNN's "Reliable Sources" at 8 am ET Sunday, to talk about the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. Since it's a show about media, I'm going to try to keep my observations in that realm. I'm disgusted by the way, even in disgrace, Fox News and Andrew Breitbart have managed to change the subject from their own corruption and lie-spewing, to the admittedly lame over-reaction by the NAACP and the Obama administration. This is mainly a media story.

But when it comes to the Sherrods, it's hard to detach my deep sadness about American politics from my disgust at the media. (You can watch my discussion at both on MSNBC's "The Ed Show" at the end of this post.) I'd like to get a few observations about politics out of my system, letting me focus on media tomorrow morning.

I have found myself saying to many people this week, black and white people, that I'm surprised President Obama didn't have someone close to him who recognized the Sherrod name right away, especially in the context of Georgia – at least the name of Shirley's husband, Charles, a major figure in the civil rights movement, if not Shirley herself, a long-time civil rights and agricultural reform leader.

But I was sad to read Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times tonight, even though she seems to agree with me. Dowd, who pretends to be liberal, needles Obama in her column by suggesting that Bill Clinton would have known the Sherrods, and thus would have acted more responsibly.

Let me just point to a couple of ways Dowd is wrong – morally wrong. I’m not sure about factually.

First of all, Dowd has savaged Bill Clinton at every opportunity since early in his presidency. She never missed an chance to trash Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. She wasn't terribly kind to Obama, either, naming him "Obambi" and regularly questioning his manhood, but there's no doubt the Clintons drew the worst of her venom. So to see Dowd use Bill Clinton's racial bona fides to attack our first black president just shows what Obama is up against. Even supposed "liberals" are gunning for him now, and they're shooting garbage.

But Dowd's column also reminds me why I thought it was so wrong for so many Democrats to tar the Clintons as racist in 2008. She quotes South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, perhaps the first major Obama supporter to accuse the Clintons of playing the so-called race card, excoriating Obama and his administration for not knowing about the Sherrods. “He needs some black people around him.”

Wow. With all due respect, Rep. Clyburn, I'd like to urge you to edit your statement to Dowd. I think perhaps you meant to say that Obama needs "some people around him" who know the heroes and the lessons of the civil rights movement, whatever their race. I would argue that the most important moral heroes in this story, behind the Sherrods, are Roger and Eloise Spooner, the white farm couple Shirley Sherrod told her story about -- ultimately she helped them save their farm -- and they came forward to tell CNN about it. When I called Taylor Branch, the great historian of the civil rights movement, he told me he knew immediately who Sherrod was when he heard the news: "I said, 'Oh my God, it's Shirley Sherrod?' She is such a gem, and he [Charles] is such a gem," and Branch spoke from memory about the bravery and importance of both of them. Branch is also white.

It's clear that there are white people who know and honor the Sherrods' work, and black people who apparently don't. Why go to race, Rep. Clyburn, when it's a black president whose administration disrespected these fine black people?

Also: And why go to Maureen Dowd, who never misses a chance to cheap-shot a Democratic president? Even if, to do so, she has to champion the one she's cheap-shotted the most, Bill Clinton. There are a lot of political lessons for Democrats in the Sherrod scandal, but I'll try to keep my focus on the media on Sunday.

Here's the MSNBC video:

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By Joan Walsh

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Race Shirley Sherrod