The Sherrod Flap And Fallout For The White House

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Michele Norris talks to Jonathan Alter, author and columnist for Newsweek magazine, about Shirley Sherrod's firing and what implications it could have for the Obama administration.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And we turn now to Jonathan Alter to talk about how the Obama administration deals with the often prickly issue of race. Alter is a Newsweek columnist and the author of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One." He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Jonathan.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Author, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One"): Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Let's set aside the specifics of the Shirley Sherrod case for just a moment and look at what this episode perhaps reveals about the culture of the White House and how it deals with race, and also the culture of the media and how it looks to, in some cases, exploit race for ratings.

Mr. ALTER: Well, first of all, I think what this was a product of is ham-handed, botched political handling of this matter, is an overreaction to a White House political problem that goes back a year or so, and which I deal with in "The Promise." They had very slow reflexes. Slow reflexes on the underwear bomber case. Slow reflexes on the BP oil spill. And they were under a lot of pressure to react faster and deal with political problems more swiftly so as to avoid distractions from their main agenda. So they overreacted this time. Instead of reacting too slowly, they reacted too quickly.

And you do have to wonder if anyone inside the White House can play this game because Andrew Breitbart was not an unknown. He is a notorious smear artist and practitioner of what's sometimes called smash-mouth politics. And they should've realized that any kind of allegation that he made needed to be checked out very carefully before anybody acted upon it.

NORRIS: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was on the defensive today in that briefing. He was asked if the administration is skittish when it comes to race. He was also asked if the administration was afraid of conservative commentators, suggesting that the administration wanted to fire Shirley Sherrod and put out a fire before conservative commentators made too much of it on cable and talk radio. Gibbs said the administration is not cowed by conservatives, but does history suggest otherwise?

Mr. ALTER: I don't think they're cowed by them. And I don't think, interestingly, that their reaction in this was mostly about race. I think what this was was they had big things on their agenda. You know, today, the president signed financial re-regulation. This story is overshadowing it. I think what they hoped was that if they could get it off the table, that they could get the kind of coverage they wanted for what they consider to be a major accomplishment and also move on to energy legislation and the rest of their agenda.

The big thing that I learned about their political operation in reporting for "The Promise" was that they believe in what's called no distractions. And so, something like this rather than being, you know, a racial issue that they want to illuminate or somehow have a national conversation about, they see as a rather trivial distraction involving somebody who's not a high level public official and something that they want to sweep away as quickly as possible.

So they are not afraid of the political damage that Fox obsessions can do. As the president has said, I don't get all wee wee-ed up about cable news. But they are afraid of their agenda being overshadowed and that's what's really at issue here.

NORRIS: You know, the president, when he talks about race, often describes it as something that is a distraction. And I'm wondering why the administration, in issuing this apology to Shirley Sherrod, would not be just more upfront and say, listen, you know, there were lots of mistakes made here, but let's look for a teachable moment, much as the president did successfully with a speech on race after the Jeremiah Wright flap.

Mr. ALTER: Well, you know, they talked about the flap over Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest as being a teachable moment. But I don't think they really meant it so much in that case. That was damage control and this is damage control. And I think in both cases they recognize that it is not the right subject on which to launch a teachable moment or a conversation about race.

So, as Barack Obama said about a month after he became president, he was asked if he thought a lot about the history involved of being the first African-American president. And he said he did for about a day, was his quote. He sees himself as president of all the people and he gets irritated at the idea of what he considers to be minor stories pushing out important stories like energy or financial re-regulation.

And if he wants to have a conversation about race, he wants to do it on his terms, on his timetable, not on a timetable imposed upon him.

NORRIS: Good to talk to you Jonathan Alter, thanks so much. Jonathan Alter is a Newsweek columnist and the author of the book "The Promise: President Obama, Year One."

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