'Shop Talk': The Sherrod Shuffle

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The rapid-fire condemnation, dismissal, and exoneration of Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod captivated much of the media this week. It’s also the hot topic in the Barbershop roundtable. Host Michel Martin leads a lively discussion about the video that sparked allegations of racism against Sherrod, her firing, and the subsequent apologies she received from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama. This week’s Barbershop guests are freelance writer Jimi Izrael; syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette; Weekly Standard Associate Editor Matt Continetti; and Johns Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, President Obama just signed what's being called the biggest overhaul of the banking and finance industry since The Great Depression. We'll talk about how the bill affects consumers in just a few minutes.

But, first, we're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And for all of you regular TELL ME MORE listeners, yes, we are starting the program in the shop instead of ending it as we normally do on Fridays. There's just so much to talk about this week. We decided to get our shapeup right away.

So sitting in the chairs for their shapeup are freelance writer Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, political science professor and blogger Lester Spence, and a name you've heard before on this program, Matthew Continetti. He's associate editor of the Weekly Standard and an author. He's with us in the shop. Take it away, Jimi.

Mr. JIMI IZRAEL (Writer): Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. What's up? Welcome to the shop.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Associate Editor, Weekly Standard): Hello.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist): Hey, man, how are you going?

Professor LESTER SPENCE (Political Science, Johns Hopkins University): Hey.

Mr. IZRAEL: Matt C., what's up, man? Welcome.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Nothing much. Enjoying the Barbershop here. Having a lot of fun.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right, man, just lay back because it's coming. Here comes the heat.

Mr. CONTINETTI: All right.

Mr. IZRAEL: Okay, well, check it out. It's kind of been an embarrassing week for the administration. That's because an African-American USDA official named Shirley Sherrod, well, she was forced to resign on Monday because of a video posted on the conservative website biggovernment.com. Now, the video was shot at an NAACP event in her home state of Georgia back in March. And the part of her remarks posted online made it seem like she was discriminating against a white farmer. Turns out, surprise, the video was heavily edited, and her comments taken out of context, Michel. Clutch the pearls.

MARTIN: I know, clutch the pearls. And then after she was pressured to resign, and she describes this very vividly, an official undersecretary calling her and making her pull over to the side of the road telling her she should resign. She should dictate her resignation or she should email her resignation on her BlackBerry.

The administration had to do a 180. And the president called her yesterday to express, quote, "regret over the situation." But here's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack who issued a rather full apology on Wednesday. Let's just play a short clip.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Agriculture Department): I've learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days. And one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn't take the time. I should have. And as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period. And I'll have to live with that for a long, long time.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, you will, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel.

MARTIN: Or not. News cycle is pretty short. Well, we'll see. I don't know. I don't know how long...

Mr. IZRAEL: Well, I don't know. I mean it's I don't know, I mean when somebody goes in on you like that and then says, oops, you know, you still got to wear that scarlet letter.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Jimi, Jimi.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yes?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Jimi, Jimi. This is Ruben. I got to chime in on that. Listen.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yes. Go ahead, Ruben. Okay, since you're the man, go ahead.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Vilsack is doing the good thing. He's being the good soldier. He's throwing himself on this grenade. But I don't believe for a minute that someone who is the former governor of Iowa has been in politics his whole life has political instincts that are so dull that he would make such an enormously important decision based on a racial issue in this administration without clearance from above.

I believe that in Washington and in politics, the way it typically works is the first story is the true story. After that it's all spin and lies. The first story, Shirley herself, Sherrod, who was a complete victim in this, said that when Cheryl Cook, the undersecretary from agriculture called her, that Cheryl Cook told her the White House wants you out. The White House wants you gone.

Now, that to my mind does not mean Obama, but it probably means Emanuel or Axelrod or somebody at the high level at the White House who saw this and had that same instinct that this administration always has. That it has to be hypersensitive on race, it has to deal with this accusation that somehow they are too hard on white people and they overcompensated and they overreacted.

But do not believe for a minute that this was Tom Vilsack over at, you know, the Ag secretary. I think he just threw himself on the grenade. I don't believe for a minute. I think the order this hit came from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Mr. IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, it's Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook was the person who called who was identified as having called Shirley Sherrod. Anyway, okay.

Mr. IZRAEL: Thank you for the clarification, Michel.

Dr. Spence, the good doctor. You're the poly sci prophet in this piece. How do you see it?

Prof. SPENCE: I think that the images of black men and women have been used to push regressive policies and used to move this country backwards for the last 30 years, at least in the modern era. And I think this is really, really unfortunate. I wish I was in a real Barbershop so I could use the real language I want to use...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: ...about what I feel about the White House throwing Shirley under the Ms. Sherrod under the bus. I mean her she's been spending all of her life, her husband was a SNCC founder, and they couldn't take the time to do due diligence because of the response to because they needed to make a certain type of response, they feel, to Glenn Beck and his ilk.

MARTIN: How come, well, how come the NAACP couldn't do their take the time to do the due diligence since that it was happening...

Mr. IZRAEL: You're right, yeah.

MARTIN: ...at an NAACP event, where Ben Jealous issued a statement saying that concurring with the decision to it says: We concur with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack in accepting the resignation of Shirley Sherrod for her remarks at a local NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. Racism is about the abuse of power. Sherrod had it in her position at USDA.

According to her remarks, she mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race. We are appalled by her actions. This is Ben Jealous not anybody in the so and this was their event, so presumably couldn't they have seen let's see the whole tape. Let's see what really was being said. Not to mention the fact that she wasn't a USDA official in the incident she was talking about. She was working for a nonprofit.

Prof. SPENCE: Right, real quick.

Mr. IZRAEL: Go ahead.

Prof. SPENCE: I only expect the NAACP to be right twice a day.

Mr. IZRAEL: Nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SPENCE: So I have a much higher standard for the White House. Right? You feel me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, Matthew wants to say something.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, go ahead, Matt C.

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think the rush to judgment was on all sides, as Michel indicates. And there's another thing going on here, too, which is I think when we have these discussions of race and racism, there's always this rush to think the worst. And it was just with the Tea Party and the NAACP resolution we were debating last week about whether the Tea Party was racist and should it denounce its racist elements.

There, too, you have the NAACP is thinking the worst of the Tea Party activists. And here everyone now immediately thinks the worst of Shirley Sherrod without knowing the full context.

MARTIN: But wasn't there a longer, a broader, I mean (unintelligible) Tea Party, a distinction I think could be made, which is number one, they were not talking about the entire movement, which is after all a grassroots movement, which involves quite a large number of people, does not have some central authority. And, secondly, there's quite a much longer record to deal with than...

Mr. CONTINETTI: Well, there were two drafts of that resolution. And the first draft was much more general in describing the Tea Party as racist in its overtones and undertones. The second draft just called on the Tea Party to denounce its, you know, whatever some of its activists go into, you know, racialist terms and rhetoric and no one has a problem with that second resolution.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Now, this is Ruben again. Shirley Sherrod, to her credit, has really good political instincts. She said on this interview with CNN's Tony Harris, she said: This all happened to me because of the NAACP. She said the NAACP got into this fight with the Tea Party and then she became sort of this collateral damage, and it's right. If you look to Andrew Breitbart, you know, the conservative blogger who supposedly caused all this, although I don't believe that. I think this was caused, again, by hypersensitivity at the White House.

But in any case, if you look to him, he basically said I just was trying to prove this idea that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. That the NAACP was going to accuse the Tea Party of racism, I was going to bring to light what I thought to be an act of racism at an NAACP event. The significance was not what she said, Shirley Sherrod said in that speech in March, it was that she said it at an NAACP event.

And then for Ben Jealous to come forward with this ridiculous statement, you know, again, if he was so offended, Michel's got a good point. If he was so offended, this was at his event, why has been sitting on his hands for the last four or five months? Why hasn't he spoken up before now?

MARTIN: There's just so many things about this that are interesting, though, which is that a lot of people wonder why it is that black officials, like, reflexively defend, you know, African-Americans no matter what they do. I mean, it seems like it. And so here you have this kind of what I think a lot of people would agree was kind of a refreshing change in that scenario. But then it's based on a lack of due diligence.

And then people what's kind of worrisome here is on the one hand you've got the positive aspect of people actually taking the time to do the due diligence, even if it's after the fact. But on the other hand, it kind of reinforces this reflexive instinct that a lot of people have to reflexively defend because, you know, there's that old saying, even if you're paranoid, somebody might be out to get you.

It just kind of reinforces the instincts that people already have, which is one of the things about Ruben mentioned CNN. You know, one of the interesting things here, you talked about Shirley Sherrod's instincts, is that she was offered the Agriculture secretary offered to bring her back to the agency and this time within the agency's Office of Civil Rights and Community Outreach. And here's Shirley Sherrod speaking on CNN to tell you about why she's kind of reluctant to think about this position. Here it is. Here's what she had to say.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Director of Rural Development, Georgia, USDA): I would not want to be the one person at USDA that's responsible for issues of discrimination within the agency. You know, there's a lawsuit by black farmers. There's a lawsuit by Hispanic and Native American and women farmers. There are issues within the department. There are changes within the department that would need to happen in order to once and for all really deal with discrimination.

MARTIN: So, Ruben, since you raise this issue she seems to have these excellent political instincts, what do you think about that? I mean obviously it's not for us to tell her what she should do because she's got to get up and do it every day, but what do you think?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think she's great. I think she's been great throughout this. I think she's exactly doing the right thing by not taking the job. She should hold out for Agriculture secretary because I think Vilsack needs to be out the door. I think there's lots of stuff for her. But she makes a very good point here, I mean white liberals mean well, but they know not what they do. In a situation like this they want to take the black woman and put her in charge of civil rights. You know, she deserves better than that. She should take the undersecretary job or something else.

I mean she's got plenty to do, plenty of opportunities at the USDA for promotion. Why do they always take, you know, in this case they stick her over in the diversity department? You know, if this were a news network they'd put me in the diversity department. I mean it's brainless, it's thoughtless, it shouldn't happen and it tells you again that there's a problem at USDA. But, again, I think above this, this is a byproduct of having the nation's first black president.

This administration is always going to be hypersensitive about conservatives. And right now in Las Vegas the Netroots are gathering and they're complaining that the left constantly lobbies the administration and doesn't get the time of day. But on the right, they just say, boo, and all of sudden, you know, the administration scampers. It's a very important point. It's a good point.

MARTIN: Jimi, Jimi, can you just weigh in really briefly? You're actually in Vegas today, just before we take a break. When we come back we'll have more, obviously. Jimi, what do you think about that? True?

Mr. IZRAEL: She should turn it down, leave it alone. Yeah, I wouldn't a horse bucks you off once on a humble, don't get back on the same horse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IZRAEL: Keep her in motion. Try a different horse. There's work at the post office.

MARTIN: Jimi, you're at Netroots, aren't you?

Mr. IZRAEL: I have what?

MARTIN: You're at Netroots, aren't you? Is that in fact that the vibe there? That people are, like, irritated because they figure they can't get the time of day?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Liberals upset with Obama.

MARTIN: Liberals upset with Obama.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, there's some of that around. There's some of that in the air, among the, you know, the lefty hippies that are here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay, we need to take not that you know any, right? We need to take a short break.

Mr. IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we will have more with Jimi Izrael, Ruben Navarrette, Lester Spence and Matthew Continetti. The Barbershop guys will talk about whether or not President Obama has a PR problem. And we'll also ask the dads (unintelligible) does being a dad make them happier or less happy? That's more on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program we will talk about the controversy around a proposed Islamic center just a few blocks away from the site of Ground Zero, and the opposition to building mosques elsewhere in the country, that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, we return to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Before we took our break, Matthew, you had a quick point you wanted to make about the whole the whole politics of the whole Shirley Sherrod thing.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Right. I just wanted to say, I think there's a reason that the White House wants to avoid controversies like this. And that's basically gets to the numbers. And if you look at Obama's job approval among white voters, it's really taken a slide, especially in the year now since the Beer Summit, the famous Beer Summit in 2009.

And so I think for Obama and the Obama administration, every moment they spend having a national conversation on race is a moment that they're not talking about the economy. And so that's that could send that approval rating even further.

MARTIN: Jimi, you wanted to talk about that, right?

Mr. IZRAEL: Yeah, Michel. Well, obviously the honeymoon is over, right? Because President Obama, he rode a wave of high expectations to victory in the 2008 election. And he campaigned for hope and change and turning rocks into loaves of bread and vowed to work across the country and the aisle to unify politics in D.C., Washington.

Now, wait a second, in the 21 months, since Obama was elected, he's seen his poll numbers kind of tank. And currently he's resting around in the 46 percent district. You know, the Democratic Party is in real jeopardy of losing its majority in the House this November, so.

MARTIN: What's interesting is a lot of people are starting to notice that this is in spite of getting some significant legislation passed by Congress, a stimulus package, health care overhaul, financial overhaul. It's particularly interesting that independents are the ones who seem to be kind of fleeing the building here.

And the president was actually on ABC's "Good Morning America" today and he was talking about the economy, again, I think what Matthew was talking about, trying to redirect the conversation to those accomplishments. I'll just play a short clip of that.

(Soundbite of show, "Good Morning America")

Pres. OBAMA: I think that we are on the right path. We're moving in the right direction. But it's hard. And people are going to be impatient, understandably. Because if you don't have a job right now or if you are trying to figure out how to pay the bills or if your 401K is recovered 60 percent but it's still not what you expected and you're about to retire, you know, even if you hear the president say we're on the right track and we've improved, you're still going to be frustrated about how slow the progress is.

MARTIN: Okay. So, I don't know. So, Matthew, what about that? I mean is it he's saying, look, just keeping it real. I mean that's just the way it is.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Right. And, you know, he has accomplished a lot. And unfortunately I don't think accomplishments help you any when the accomplishments are unpopular. And that's Obama's problem is a combination of the economy and the agenda. And the reason the agenda is unpopular is I personally think it's too liberal for the independents.

But I also think it hasn't produced the economic recovery that was promised. And it all goes back, to me, for the stimulus and the Obama administration said in February '09 that if we pass a stimulus they'd keep unemployment at eight percent. Now it's at 9.5 percent and net, we've still lost 2.3 million jobs. And as long as we have that net job loss, Obama is not going to be able to achieve much.

Mr. IZRAEL: Dr. Spence. Thanks for that, Matty C. I'm wondering if he's actually failing as a president or is he just not getting, you know, props for all his accomplishments. What's up with that?

Dr. SPENCE: It's hard to give props when you're looking at foreclosures, hard to give somebody props when you're looking at foreclosure. So I think the challenge is twofold. First is that a discussion I want to piggyback on something that was said earlier. We should have a discussion about race that is linked to the economy. One of the reasons why support for policies are so why his policies are viewed as unpopular is because in some ways they've been racialized. They've been attached to race.

We hear people talking about the unemployed as if they were black men, right, and using the same some of the same derogatory language. So what Obama needs to do is actually be more liberal so the stimulus package didn't work not because it was a liberal policy, but because it wasn't big enough right now. And that thing is something that's really hard for him to consider.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oh, ouch.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Wow.

MARTIN: But based on the numbers, why should he? Because in fact African-Americans continue to give him the highest approval ratings when unemployment is the highest among this group, right? I mean if he's being graded on result, not intention, right, which is what everybody says, he's being graded on the results, not the intention by white voters, by independent voters, by Republicans who have never supported him. So those are fair grades, right? Based on the results, right?

Dr. SPENCE: Well, what I'm talking about is how to move people how to move the country forward and how to get his support how to increase his support among independents. I'm not actually talking about black voters, right? So talking about race and linking it to the economy in ways that will help unemployed white working class people understand that it's not that he's not helping black people, his policies aren't just about helping black people, his policy is about are about helping me.

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. That's interesting. Ruben, can we have a final thought from you before we touch on one more thing.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because do you think it's fair or unfair how the president's being evaluated?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it's fair, but I think the president rode a wave. When he came in he came across very well, I mean not just because he was running against John McCain. McCain had higher negatives than Obama. People liked Obama. They felt optimistic about Obama. People who didn't vote for Obama felt good about the election overall thinking, you know, this is pretty good thing. This is a good thing for the country. And he lost two-thirds of independents, a third of Democrats over his policy. Some people think he's not liberal enough.

And overall I think he's not wearing very well. There's lots of little reasons, I think, he comes off as robotic, not emotional enough when he needs to be emotional, not enough in your corner. You know, he delivers these great speeches, we know that already, but speeches only get you so far with economic problems and the like. So I think he's just not wearing it very well and I think he's got a real problem come 2012. And before that, Democrats have a real problem come November.

MARTIN: But before we go, I wanted to pose a question to you all that we asked a group of bloggers earlier this week and a group of moms the week before that. It was based on an article published called "All Joy and No Fun." It was the name of a piece written by Jennifer Senior who wrote this for New York Magazine and she was exploring research on whether having kids actually makes people happier or not.

And we talked about that with a group of guys who blog about parenting. But listener Chris Jenkins(ph) of Richmond, Virginia, wrote to us and he wanted to hear what you all have to say. Matthew, sorry we have to leave you out because you don't have any kids that you've told us about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONTINETTI: I still have thoughts on parenting, though, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But you don't know whether they make you happy or not.

Mr. IZRAEL: Oops.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah.

Mr. IZRAEL: We haven't checked TMZ this morning. So...

MARTIN: Maybe that's why he doesn't have kids, I don't know. But, all right, but they wanted to hear the dads on this. So, Lester, you kind of take the crown since you have five.

Dr. SPENCE: You know, I'm, like, I'm actually like the black daddy king.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SPENCE: Five kids. You know what? It's not that it makes me I mean I've almost always I've had kids my whole adult life, so it's not about whether it makes me happy or not. You know what it makes me? It makes me relentless. It makes me relentless. So I don't stop. I play really, really hard and I work really, really, really hard because of my kids.

MARTIN: You know what? That wasn't the question. The question is whether you're happy. That really...

Dr. SPENCE: When you have five kids, happiness isn't in the equation.

MARTIN: Oh, ouch, okay, I think. I don't know, Ruben?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I got three kids: one, three and five and I am very happy. But it's no mistake here, it's a lot of work. And I've had it described to me as the highest highs and the lowest lows and I think that's right. You got to know what you're getting into with parenting. But at the end of the day, it's incredibly taxing and incredibly fulfilling all at the same time.

MARTIN: So are you happy? You are happy. You are happy.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: You bet.

MARTIN: All right, Jimi, what about you? You have two.

Mr. IZRAEL: Actually, I have...

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

Mr. IZRAEL: I have four.

MARTIN: Four, forgive me, I'm sorry.

Mr. IZRAEL: I have three that I made the old-fashioned way and I have one that I claim is one I claim is my own.

MARTIN: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. I have two that I gave the old-fashioned and I have two that I claim. I know what you're saying.

Mr. CONTINETTI: I learn something every day on this show.

MARTIN: Okay. All right, happy or not happy?

Mr. IZRAEL: Very happy. I fought I spent thousands of dollars for the rights to my to enforce my parental rights as a dad. And it was worth every penny. Every day I'm grateful. I moved back to Cleveland to be closer to my children once it became apparent they couldn't be close to me. They couldn't come closer to me. And every day it was just the best decision probably the best decision I've made in a long time.

MARTIN: All right. Okay, Matthew, you said you had thoughts. Let's hear it.

Dr. SPENCE: God bless you, brother.

Mr. CONTINETTI: My piece of wisdom here is...

MARTIN: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONTINETTI: ...that kids may not make...

MARTIN: And when are you coming to babysit?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Kids may not make you happy, but grandchildren always do. And that's why you have kids is to get the grandchildren.

MARTIN: So when are you gettin' busy, man?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: That's a long ways for me.

Mr. IZRAEL: Wait, when are you gettin' busy, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Gettin' busy, man.

Mr. CONTINETTI: The clock is ticking, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, I was going to say...

Mr. CONTINETTI: The countdown begins now.

MARTIN: But let me just say, we have how many among us? We have, like, ten that we could we would appreciate your assistance with at any time.

Mr. CONTINETTI: I'm always I can always dispense advice, yeah.

MARTIN: You can give me those Dave Matthews Band tickets and you can watch the little all right.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: And, Matthew, don't just drop them in front of Fox News, that ain't right.

MARTIN: Oh. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SPENCE: My kids will take you out if you do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. Well, we have to leave it there. Matthew Continetti is an associate editor at the Weekly Standard. He's the author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star." Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station KNPR in Las Vegas. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post writers group, and he also writes for CNN.com. He was with us from San Diego. And Lester Spence, a blogger, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. He, like, Matt, was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

Dr. SPENCE: Thank you.

Mr. IZRAEL: Yup, yup.

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