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Bunker Mentality at 1600 Pennsylvania?

I don’t usually like to comment on the scandal du jour, so I’ll keep this brief.

Yesterday, a woman Shirley Sherrod resigned under pressure from her position at the USDA after Andrew Brietbart’s website,, posted a video in which she made remarks to a NAACP convention that Brietbart characterized as reflecting racism. Today, however, it became clear — first based on remarks made by Sherrod as well as the white farming family that she allegedly discriminated against — that the video clip had been taken entirely out of context. In fact, the full context of her remarks reflected a repudiation of racism: Sherrod had grown up in the South before the Civil Rights Era, her father had been murdered by a white man, and it was only in helping the white farming family in 1986 that — with God’s assistance, she says — she came to realize the real struggle was one of poverty rather than racism. Conservative commentators from Glenn Beck to Erick Erickson have criticized Brietbart’s presentation of the video, the decision to fire Sherrod, or both.

The White House claims that it had not placed pressure on the USDA to encourage Sherrod’s resignation. You can choose to believe that or not, just as you can choose to whether or not to believe Brietbart was not in possession of the whole video, as he now claims.

What there’s no ambiguity about, however, is that the White House is standing by its decision, which it now credits to Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. My guess is that common sense will prevail and that Sherrod will be invited to re-take her position, probably within 24 hours. But what if the White House doesn’t back down? And if it does, why did it take the White House so long to come to a seemingly obvious course of action that Charles Krauthammer and Glenn Greenwald agree upon?

I don’t think the answers to that question are pretty. It was one thing for the White House to encourage Sherrod’s resignation based on such flimsy evidence, thereby enabling Brietbart and other media-savvy activists who are engaged in trench warfare against it. That’s bad enough. But it’s another thing to refuse to re-hire her. One overarching critique of some of the less successful Presidencies of the recent past is that they suffer from a bunker mentality: they were either too stubborn, or too detached from reality, to acknowledge mistakes and correct errant courses of action. Although the mistakes over Sherrod may not be of the same magnitude as, for instance, the mistakes made in the Vietnam Era, it nevertheless seems that the only reason not to re-hire is that it would involve admitting you’d screwed up in the first place.

There are going to be some tough times ahead for the White House — beginning, in particular, with the midterm elections, which even under best-case assumptions will significantly weaken their majorities. No one decision from among the dozens that a White House has to make each day can be completely representative of the way that it is thinking about politics and governance (although really, there are two decisions here: first, to fire Sherrod, and second, not to re-hire her). But I wonder about the state of mind of a White House that has chosen this course of action and how that bodes for navigating the tough waters that they and the country are facing.

p.s. The way in which the clipped video came to be produced, disseminated and hyped is exceptionally troubling on its own merits — the White House’s actions should not be a distraction from this. But this is a blog about politics, not about media, so I’ll leave that to people on other beats.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.