'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
The witch-hunt vs. Sherrod, and those who made it possible
via YouTube, h/t fferkleheimer
Guests: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Keith Olbermann, David Frum, David Corn, Chris Hayes
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, GUEST HOST (voice-over): Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
The backpedaling begins. Only hours after the full video is posted on-line, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reconsiders his decision to sack USDA official, Shirley Sherrod. Vindicated at last.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHIRLEY SHERROD, USDA OFFICIAL: I kept saying, look at the entire thing. Look at my message. And no one would listen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Why did Vilsack fire before all the facts were in? How involved was the White House? What is Andrew Breitbart's new defense?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDREW BREITBART, BIGGOVERNMENT.COM: I asked that person to send me the relevant clips.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Tonight, David Frum on how the right-wing has manipulated the media and the story. Melissa Harris-Lacewell on how the administration is dealing with race issues. David Corn on how the administration botched the case.
And Keith Olbermann returns for a "Special Comment."
GOP extreme: the Tea Party holds its first official caucus in the House, thanks to Michele Bachmann.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: The Tea Party has a set of ideas.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: But are they good ideas for the Republican Party?
All the news and commentary - now on Countdown.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
BACHMANN: They need to speak for themselves.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Good evening. From the New York, I'm Lawrence O'Donnell, in for Keith Olbermann.
The organization has spent the last 24 hours jumping through hoops for a right-wing blogger considered non-credible even by one FOX News anchor and then scrambling to undo the unnecessary damage.
Our fifth story tonight: When you're falsely vilified and then sacked, you've been Vilsacked. But tonight, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack both apologized to Shirley Sherrod and asked her to come back to work.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM VILSACK, SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Vilsack's agency forced Sherrod to resign yesterday after a video was posted on Monday in which she appeared to recount her prejudice thoughts about a white farmer.
The video was posted by right-wing blogger, Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart is the same man who brought us the incomplete and fraudulent tapes that smeared the community group ACORN leading fearful Democrats to pull funding and kill the group. More later on the White House role on all of this.
But today, Breitbart spoke with NBC's Maura Schiavocampo and said that only after the NAACP called on the Tea Party to renounce its racist elements last week did he remember suddenly that he got a tip about Sherrod speaking to the NAACP in March.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BREITBART: I sort of forgot about it. And - when the NAACP started to resurrect the false narrative of the Tea Party being racist - when I realized that the NAACP was doing this, I knew that this story existed and I asked that person to send me the relevant clips.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: The relevant clips, he wanted, not the whole thing. Who needs the whole thing?
Breitbart's attack on the NAACP for allegedly making up false claims of racism in the Tea Party came one day after the Tea Party Federation expelled the Tea Party Express because of racist remarks by leader Mike Williams. Breitbart today re-focused his attack, calling Sherrod's audience and the NAACP racist.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BREITBART: The first video, the one that is the controversial one where the racism exists in terms of the audience reaction and the narrative that she plays is that it's newsworthy in and of itself. I'm sympathetic to the fact that they went after her and not after NAACP to tell them stop it. Stop bringing back racism.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: The problem for Mr. Breitbart as "Media Matters" demonstrates today, there was no racist reaction from the audience. He then claimed, as he did with ACORN, to have more supposedly damning videos.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BREITBART: The NAACP - I believe I could show you more videos. There's a lot of video out there that shows that the NAACP countenances racism and I think more offensively if anybody goes off of the plantation, as it were, who's an African-American, they're called Uncle Toms by this group.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Let's bring in David Frum, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and columnist for theweek.com.
Good evening, David.
Can you tell me what that last remark of his, off the plantation?
What is Andrew trying to say there?
DAVID FRUM, FMR. BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I think it's clear. I think what's so painful is Andrew is suggesting that you can meet false accusations of racism with false accusations of racism of your own, and that when you come under attack, the way you respond from mistake is not by apologizing but by going on a further attack.
And what's so heart-rending about all of this is that the conservative movement to which Andrew Breitbart speaks is a movement of people who are clamoring for an alternative pact for this country. They want - they don't - they want a different way from the way President Obama is leading the country, and they're right to want that.
But instead of giving solutions, instead of giving them bread, we're giving them the stone of racial division, of fanning animosity needlessly. And it sounds like - it sounds like, I hope this isn't true, consciously needlessly.
O'DONNELL: Now, David, you've written that this incident illustrates what you referred to as the closing of the conservative mind. Can you explain that?
FRUM: Well, the second day narrative that has gripped the conservative world, on July 19th when the story broke, conservatives by and large believed it. There are a few honorable exceptions. By the 20th, the story had fallen apart. And at that point, Andrew Breitbart introduced the second line of defense, which is - which was this story reflects on the president for believing him, reflects badly on the NAACP for issuing an apology by believing, and that's the real news here, and that he's kind of co-victim with Ms. Sherrod.
And the conservative world has largely fallen in to line with this. They concentrated the attack on the administration and not pondered that this is - there's a false story here. And that someone disseminated the false story.
And that makes us part of the distraction, too, when we ought to be doing is saying, we have ideas, we have solutions. You want a job. We know how to put you to work.
O'DONNELL: Now, I've known Andrew for a long time. He lives in Los Angeles, as I do. You've probably known for him a while. He's suddenly emerging as the video manipulator of the right-wing of the Republican Party.
How did he become the guy who's taken on this role?
FRUM: Well, look, he's got genius instincts. Race is always the sore corn of the American body politics and you stomp on it, and people jump and they can't help it. And the cameras come.
You know, if you - if you were - on our Web site, we are posting every day comments about what's wrong with the president's financial reform, what's wrong with his approach to job creation, and you know, we got to learned and lost an audience, but we don't get the numbers that you get if you take - if you take a big block of cement and drop it on the country's deepest wound.
O'DONNELL: Now, in this - in developing Breitbart edge of the Republican Party, you have Sarah Palin over there, you have now Rush Limbaugh has been over there for a while. You have this - Andrew is now taking this new position over there. He's the latest character to emerge over there.
How do Republicans like yourself - how do - how do Republicans who are trying to advocate actual governing positions get heard amid all of this kind of noise that is actually in no real way relevant to governing the United States?
FRUM: Well, first, we have to have the confidence that our followers and our members deserve. And I speak to a lot of Republican groups. And when you - when you talk to them, they are consumed with real concerns and real problems. And they are parched for them. And when you give them those things, they respond.
We just have to keep doing a better way. This is working now in these times of pain. And, you know, look, it's always going to be exciting. But you can't govern this way. And when the Republican Party does the self-examination and say, gee, how is it that we are unable to attract minority voters, why isn't that we have such trouble with women? That incidents like this, as lucrative as it seems in the short term, they're not exactly very big long-term press.
O'DONNELL: David Frum, former speechwriter for President Bush, now a columnist at theweek.com - thanks for joining us tonight, David.
FRUM: Thank you.
O'DONNELL: Now, let's bring in MSNBC contributor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton and a columnist for "The Nation."
Good evening, Melissa.
I don't quite get why this vilification of Shirley Sherrod was so completely successful so very, very quickly before anyone knew the truth. Why - how did this move so fast?
MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think it's simply because of the vilification of black women for sport and for political gain has been sort of a basic part of the American political strategy for both the Republican and Democratic parties for a couple of decades now. It certainly began with Ronald Reagan's attempt to blame the majority of the economic problems of the 1980s on the mythical Welfare Queen who was somehow stealing from government coffers.
But it continued into the Clinton administration when Bill Clinton as a candidate, made an unprovoked attack on Sister Souljah as a way of demonstrating kind of - that he was a new and a centrist Democrat who wouldn't be beholden to typical race issues. And it continued when he turned his back on a law school friend in the person of Lani Guinier.
You know, I have to say that, for me, this is not surprising, but it is painful to watch that, again, even in this administration, how easy it is to assume that an African-American woman deserves to be vilified.
O'DONNELL: Was it - was it easier? Is it possible that it was easier? Was there something unique about the elements of this story that made it so combustible - a black woman working in the administration of a black president?
HARRIS-LACEWELL: Possibly. But I got to say, you know, my particular sort of anger and the thing that's been keeping me up since last night has been directed towards the NAACP. Because the fact is, what - you know, to me, sort of the piece that is the match on this is how quickly Ben Jealous, someone who I respect, who I like personally, who's presidency of the NAACP is something that I have supported and defended. And, yet, he seems to have lacked an understanding of who this woman was.
Her last name, Sherrod, should have immediately caused him to say, wait a minute, there's another Sherrod family. In fact, it turns out she's the wife of Charles Sherrod, someone who is a founder of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who has a deep history in southern organizing around interracial issues who is - I mean, to say her last name alone should have prompted for the head of NAACP an immediate moment of pausing and - I mean, my gosh, just bother to google and to get information.
And so, the fact that it was not only the right-wing and not only an administration, but that the very organization that should have known enough history to have immediately come to her defense instead attempted to publicly shame her and distanced themselves from her, I see that as a key element in what happened here.
O'DONNELL: And they did do a corrective faster than the administration did. Julian Bond was on this network, on this program last night, calling specifically on the administration to change their minds about this and reinstate her as they've now done in effect.
But now, Andrew Breitbart's mission seems to be to prove that all prejudicial feelings are equal. And that anyone who harbors anybody prejudicial feelings has no right to accuse anyone else of any kind of prejudice. David Frum was just suggesting this, that Andrew Breitbart is trying to play a game of moral equivalence with racism.
What do you make of that?
HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, you know, it's interesting. It reminds me very much of the Academy Award-winning 2004 film, "Crash." When I heard this story breaking, I thought, this sounds like that film to me.
If you remember in that film, the first act of really horrifying racism occurs when the white police officer puts his hand up an African-American woman's dress, a kind of sexual assault on her. But in a - in a scene right after that, we see a black woman bureaucrat refusing government and public services to this police officer's aging father.
And the idea in that film, and, of course, not just that the movie was made, but that we embraced it as a country and we felt so good about ourselves for awarding the Oscar, is that this idea that a police officer and sort of a low-level bureaucrat are all the same. All prejudice is equal.
And this is the thing that exactly what the NAACP is moved to do, is to explain that it is structural racism that matters. Not just momentary sort of lapses of prejudice. Even if that tape had been true, it still would not be an equivalency to Jim Crow, to slavery, and to institutional racism.
O'DONNELL: Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University, in New Orleans, for us tonight - thank you very much for joining us tonight, Melissa. We really appreciate it.
HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks, Lawrence.
O'DONNELL: Coming up: despite today's positive developments, the fact remains that the Sherrod case has been mishandled from the very start. Among the other things: Why did the administration fire her first, ask questions later?
And, later, it's Michele Bachman's Tea Party and she'll caucus if she wants to.
Stay with us.
O'DONNELL: He said this afternoon that the buck stops with him as it should. But that shouldn't put a stop to questions about what went wrong.
It all started when he asked for the relevant clips of video. That's enough to bring Keith back tonight for a "Special Comment."
She said the Tea Party Caucus would only be listening - a listening ear to the Tea Party and nothing more. Don't the tea partiers expect her to actually do something like maybe cut taxes?
O'DONNELL: Decisions were made in haste; action was taken without all of the facts. Now, I'm not describing the right-wing's rush to judge Shirley Sherrod, but the botched handling of her case by the Obama administration.
In our fourth story: Why wasn't she fired first and questions asked only later?
First, a timeline. Ms. Sherrod said she received a series of phone calls from the USDA Undersecretary Cheryl Cook on Monday while on a road trip. Cook reportedly told Sherrod the department wanted her immediate resignation because of the flap over Breitbart's edited video was going to be on "Glenn Beck" tonight.
Sherrod says she wasn't allowed to explain herself. Instead, she had to pull over to the side of the road and submit her resignation via BlackBerry.
As for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's follow-up, disregarding the actual context of Ms. Sherrod's remarks, Mr. Vilsack said the controversy compromises Sherrod's ability to do her job.
Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offering Ms. Sherrod an apology on behalf of the administration, adding that both the media as well as government officials acted without all of the facts.
And at a news conference late this afternoon, Mr. Vilsack saying he only saw a partial transcript of Ms. Sherrod's remarks before making his decision to fire her - first speaking to the several exchanges that Ms. Sherrod had with Ms. Cook, then absolving the White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VILSACK: First of all, I indicated to Shirley, my personal regret and my responsibility for the fact that she received multiple phone calls. And that's, again, a problem that I could have corrected if I had done this job properly. Having said that, there was no pressure from the White House here, this was my decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Joining me now is the Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" magazine and columnist for "Politics Daily," David Corn.
Good evening, David.
No pressure from the White House we just heard.
DAVID CORN, MOTHER JONES MAGAZINE: Good evening.
O'DONNELL: None at all. The White House said that the administration acted without all of the information and admitted that.
Why were they so eager to pull the trigger on this one?
CORN: Well, I think they were running scared. I mean, not the White House per se, but certainly the Ag Department. You have Tom Vilsack and Cheryl Cook. And I take Shirley Sherrod at her word when they said, you know, we've got to get you to resign because this is going to be on "Glenn Beck."
Now, when you're letting your ideological enemies like Glenn Beck define the terms, you've lost big time. If you're not going to sit up and fight for your people when they're pummeled unfairly by FOX and Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, then it really shows you don't have much of a spine.
And that is, I think, what made a lot of Obama administration supporters quite ill at ease, even sick in their stomach about this whole affair. How quickly they moved to cut off someone who might have led to a bad spot on Glenn Beck. And, of course, as we know, there's no basis for that bad spot eventually.
O'DONNELL: Now, are you buying the Vilsack line of no pressure from the White House? I mean, since when on racial politics and a hot one like this would an administration leave it to - the guys at the Ag Department to figure out what to do with this one?
CORN: Well, duh - it seems like there might have been some contact. Today, someone is talking about a White House liaison talking to the Ag Department before this happened. I mean, I do believe that political appointees at the Ag Department, you know, being mainly motivated by politics, not necessarily by what is the right thing to do thought that they wanted to cut this bleeder off and they even showed the White House how to take care of things in their department.
So, there's that there. And we do know that Vilsack, as you noted in the lead-in here, yesterday afternoon, after it was becoming clear that Shirley Sherrod had been totally set up and had done nothing wrong, he was still releasing statements saying, because of his controversy, we can't - you know, we can't have anyone like that out there - which, again, was a very shameful statement to make, because you're ceding power and influence to your enemies if any time there is a fuss about somebody falsely, you then have to cut them off.
O'DONNELL: How are Vilsack and the administration doing with a mop-up of this incredible mess? I can't think of a situation like this that the administration has been in before starting with the apology to Shirley Sherrod.
CORN: I think, so far, so good. I mean, Vilsack was indeed contrite. I think, you know, Robert Gibbs, at his press conference today, you know, had a heart felt apology. He wouldn't answer all the questions. People ask about some of the context after the dismissal between the White House and the Ag Department, he didn't go into a lot of details on that. So, you know, they're not being completely transparent.
But I do think, right now, they realize that they screwed up big time, on both sides - at the White House and at the Ag Department. And I think they sincerely want this - want to make good, want to make Shirley Sherrod as whole as possible and get out.
What I - what I find a little hard to believe is that they have no push-back whatsoever against the fact that she was the victim of a right-wing smear that was mounted quite purposefully. These - you know, there are media and partisan players out there who are targeting the White House, this administration, for their own ideological ends, that's fine. But they're doing it with false information. And there seems to be no sort of recognition or indignation about that in the administration.
O'DONNELL: Now, Vilsack met tonight with the Congressional Black Caucus and they have pointed out that the Agriculture Department never filed any of the people responsible for years of discrimination against black farmers. The USDA in that case had to reach two separate e billion dollar settlements with black farmers in two class action suits in 1999, again this year.
O'DONNELL: Now, this is - you know, for him to walk in to a meeting like that with a Black Caucus knowing his history, what can he possibly say to them?
CORN: I'm really sorry. I mean, I don't know - I mean, that, you know, oddly enough or ironically enough, that's part of his defense. You know, he and the White House have said, because of this awful history at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in terms of racism against Native Americans, Hispanic, and black, African-American farmers that they were highly sensitive, highly attuned to this issue. So, they overreacted when, you know, any racist-tainted charge came up in this race.
So, sure, he tried to use that partly to his defense. But, I think, right now, he's nothing except a lot of - I'm really sorry, to say to Shirley Sherrod, the Black Congressional Caucus and, of course, to Americans who care about truth and honesty in government and the media.
O'DONNELL: David Corn of "Mother Jones" magazine - many thanks.
CORN: Thank you, Lawrence.
O'DONNELL: Coming up: Michelle Obama's inaugural Tea Party Caucus meeting, possibly more notable for who wasn't there than for who was.
And later, Keith is here with a "Special Comment" on Shirley Sherrod and the assassins of the right who tried to bring her down.
O'DONNELL: Coming up on Countdown: What's good for Michelle Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus might not be good for the Republican Party, just ask John Boehner.
And later, Keith's "Special Comment" on Shirley Sherrod and the enablers of the left who didn't bother to seek the truth.
O'DONNELL: Thanks to Michele Bachmann, Republican lawmakers in the House can no longer have it both ways. And it's Congresswoman Michele Bachmann who they can thank for that, as I said. In our third story, Bachmann has formed the Tea Party Caucus, and her colleagues are already splitting over whether or not to join. The Tea Party Caucus' first meeting was held today, followed by a rousing news conference comprised of about six congressional members of the Tea Party Caucus, as well as some local Tea Party activists.
The founder of the caucus explained its purpose.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: So we decided to form a Tea Party caucus for one important purpose: to listen to the concerns of the Tea Party. What we are not - we are not the mouthpiece of the Tea Party. We're not taking the Tea Party and controlling it from Washington, D.C. I am not the head of the Tea Party. Nor are any of these members of Congress the head of the Tea Party movement. The people are the head of the Tea Party movement in all of their forms.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O'DONNELL: Other speakers included Tea Party activists. One African-American woman said that, quote, "we are not terrorists. We are not racists." And other activists tried to portray the movement as mainstream. While yet another speaker compared President Obama to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying, quote, "it's no longer a bloody war. It's an ideological war."
Evidently, Bachmann's plans to form a Tea Party Caucus caught most of her colleagues by surprise, since did not even warn them that she was planning to form the caucus. Her spokesman saying, quote, "it was something we were doing on our own. Ultimately, we just pulled the trigger."
Today, Congresswoman Bachmann's website posted an updated list of Tea Party Caucus members, which now boasts about three dozen House Republicans, out of 178 Republican lawmakers. The Tea Party Caucus includes Congressman Mike Pence, who, as chairman of the House Republican Conference, is the third ranking House Republican. Also joining NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions, flaky Congress Dan Burton, Congressman Dan Hoekstra, and Congressman John "You Lie" Wilson of South Carolina.
But House Minority Leader John Boehner has declined. At least Congressman Boehner can cite his previously stated policy that he's not a member of any caucus other than the House Republican Conference. And Congressman Eric Cantor, the number two House Republican, has also declined. His excuse was that the beauty of the Tea Party movement was that it is organic and certainly not of Washington.
Let's bring in the Washington editor of "The Nation" and MSNBC contributor, Chris Hayes. Good evening, Chris. I'm not sure you can talk about this, because you're the Washington editor. And as you know, the Tea Party is not of Washington.
CHRIS HAYES, "THE NATION: I like to think I'm in Washington but not of Washington.
O'DONNELL: Yes. You're sort of a Michele Bachmann type when it comes to Washington.
HAYES: That's right.
O'DONNELL: Now, is this a good day for the Republican party, that there's a new caucus with 36 members in it and the rest of the caucus desperately worried about whether they should be in it?
HAYES: Well, it is interesting, right? It's calling a bluff in a certain way, at least at the level of labels and optics. I mean, I think one thing to remember is the House Republican caucus, such as it is, is already extremely, extremely ideologically far right. That's been looked at by political scientists, who sort of map this with this metric of where people fall. It's moved to the right. In fact, the smaller it's gotten, the more it shifted to the right.
So this is, in some ways, just kind of putting a name on what has already been the case, which is that that the far right of the Republican party is the kind of center of gravity in the House.
O'DONNELL: Now, Grover Norquist's anti-tax movement has created a litmus test for all Republicans. They have to sign a no taxes pledge. They'll never vote for a tax increase. That's really a pretty much a unanimous agreement of Republican congressional members to sign that thing. The Tea Party now strikes me as another possible certification that Republicans can get to prove their pure right wingedness.
At only 46 out of 178 is either not a good start for the Tea Party or a problem for the people who aren't in it going forward. Which way is this going to play?
HAYES: That's the interesting thing. I mean, A is how rigid entry is going to be. B, whether it becomes a political benefit in very conservative districts, particularly in the primaries. If they get involved in primaries, then they have a whole kind of political issue on their hands in terms of negotiating the politics of incumbents and challengers, et cetera.
But I think the really interesting thing to see is that - is this just going to be another hustle? What I mean by that is it is very easy to be the revolutionaries when you're in the minority. We've seen this movie before. We remember Gingrich and the Republican Revolution in 1994. I was reading over the Contract with America today. One of the items, of course, was term limits, which quickly fell by the wayside.
The story that Republicans tell about what happened to the class of '94, people like Bob Ney, who ended up jail, and all of the antagonists of Jack Abramoff, is we came to change Washington and Washington changed us.
But actually, there's nothing structurally different about the underpinnings of the conservative coalition and the House Republican Caucus then than there is now. If they're in power again, they're going to be voting to expand the deficit and increase funding on the military, cut taxes for the wealthy, and the entire agenda that we already know.
O'DONNELL: Now, Michele Bachmann was very ecumenical about this today. She invited Democrats to join the Tea Party Caucus. It doesn't have to be a partisan caucus. Any Democrats going to be tempted?
HAYES: Walt Minnick might flirt with it. He's the Democrat from Idaho. He is the at-large representative of the entire state. He's probably the most conservative Democrat. But ultimately, no. This is going to be - in the same way there's no Republicans in the Progressive Caucus, this will be the far right caucus in the Republican party.
Again, it's putting a name on something that I think has sort of
existed beyond it. If they really want to take on their own party on
issues - if they want to sign a pledge saying we won't vote for anything -
anything that will increase the deficit, I would love to see that. That means vote - you can't vote for wars that are unfunded. It means you can't vote to put through massive tax cuts.
If they're going to take one pledge, I would love to see them put their money where their mouth is and pledge on that.
O'DONNELL: Chris Hayes of "The Nation," and MSNBC and definitely of Washington, thanks for your time tonight.
HAYES: Thanks, Lawrence.
O'DONNELL: Coming up on Countdown, Keith takes Andrew Breitbart to task. And he's not the only target of a very special Special Comment.
And when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, the intimidation aspect of the Sherrod scandal with Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson.
O'DONNELL: We turn now to day 93 of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In our number two story on the Countdown, the well is still holding, but it looks like the weather might not. With engineers moving closer to plugging the leak permanently, a tropical storm is threatening to put those efforts on hold. Forecasters give the system a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm within the next 48 hours. If that happens, it could force crews to abandon the location of the well sometime over the weekend.
The Coast Guard admiral leading the response says they'd have to take the cap off before they go. And they could be gone for as long as two weeks.
Today's possible good news, engineers might have the first relief tunnel completed by this weekend, if they don't have to leave first. On the other side of this break, as promised, Keith takes over with a Special Comment on the many forces that all conspired to bring down a USDA official who did nothing to deserve it. Stay with us.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR: With my thanks to Lawrence O'Donnell and my staff, as promised, my special comment on the witch hunt against Shirley Sherrod and those who made it possible.
On the 15th of October, 1894, a fervently patriotic, almost jingoistic French man stepped into the office of the Minister of War, in Paris. He had been told he was simply attending a review and he was still not suspicious, even as another man slammed a hand on his shoulder and arrested him for treason. Just 82 days later, he was convicted, stripped of his military rank, sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to a fortress in Guyana.
He was, of course, utterly and totally innocent. All of the evidence against him had been fabricated, some of it literally stitched together, with the parts that would have exonerated him, edited out. But religious fervor and xenophobia had gripped his country, and his ethnic group was in the minority, at a time when the majority was trying to paint that minority as evil and subversive and bigoted beyond all reason against the majority.
Those in government who knew his innocence stayed silent in a foolish and ill-fated attempt to govern on behalf of all of the people, even the irrational and the hateful and the prejudiced. Those in the press who did not grab at the circulation and the profits that the hatred and the scapegoating would bring them, were literally chased out of the country.
Thus would it be just under five years before the man was pardoned, nearly eleven before he was fully exonerated and restored to active service. His name, of course, was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and the fortress in Guyana was Devil's Island.
Well we need to congratulate ourselves. How far we have come. We can pull a Dreyfus faster than the French could in 1894. Eighty-two days until they sent him to Devil's Island? We did it to Shirley Sherrod in 48 hours.
We, the howling fools of the far right, the stand-aside pathetic bureaucrats of the Department of Agriculture, the whole of the cowering media, this network included, the whole of the government, this self-defeatingly above-it-all president, included.
It is a merciful by-product of the swiftness with which we can ruin somebody's life today that the real truth will also emerge at nearly the same lightning-speed if we're likely. No matter how much of a stretch it is to compare Shirley Sherrod to Alfred Dreyfus, mistake it not; Shirley Sherrod has been to her own Devil's Island. And thanks to the perpetual fraud machine that is Fox News, and the scum that is this assassin Breitbart, there will be a portion of this country - the mindless, the hateful, the reactionary, the racist - to whom she is forever convicted and ever imprisoned.
I have sat behind this desk for seven years and pushed back at these counterfeit journalists, as a man might stand at the shore and try to push back the tide. I have been branded an ideologue and a profiteer and a mirror of image of that which I am assailing. I have said it in every way I could think of, and been told I have been over-the-top because I have mocked and shouted and repeated.
And today the proof lies in front of you, bleeding: the reputation of Shirley Sherrod, a woman who 24 years ago saw and overcame the vengeance in her own heart and achieved the kind of true greatness the rest of us can only hope we might express for one moment in the whole of our lives - a reputation assassinated by Fox News, assassinated by that scum Breitbart, assassinated by all their meager-brained imitators on other channels and other websites, their limp fellow travelers who never asked questions first, but simply shot, and shot, and shot, and shot and laughed!
Let me make this utterly clear: what you see on Fox News, what you read on right wing websites, is the utter and complete perversion of journalism. And it can have no place in a civilized society. It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame. It is a political guillotine. It is the manipulation of reality to make the racist seem benevolent, and to convict the benevolent as racist, even if her words must be edited, filleted, stripped of all context, rearranged, fabricated, and falsified, to do so.
What you see on Fox News, what you read on right wing websites is a manipulation, not just of a story, not just on behalf of a political philosophy. Manipulation of a society, its intentional redirection from reality and progress to a paranoid delusion and the fomenting of hatred of Americans by Americans. And nearly every last word of it is never, in any tangible sense, true. Ask Shirley Sherrod.
But this evil has not become institutionalized just because of the hard, soul-less work of Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes and the scum Breitbart. Our society has not bought into the premise of this 24-hour parade of feces dressed up as news just because of a clever marketing plan. The assassins of the right have been enabled on the left.
The apologies are nice. They provide a thin line of self respect, but only a thin one. The legitimate media did not first look at the whole videotape. We didn't first ask if the doctored clip perverted by the scum Breitbart did not seem to be leading up to a "however." We didn't even today, when even this network let this pornographer of propaganda Breitbart come on and spew his lies and his venom and his fraudulent, obviously false self-defense, like a quack doctor attending a life-or-death surgery - we didn't once consider the source.
"We are appalled by her actions" said the head of the NAACP. "She mistreated a white farmer in need of assistance because of his race." Benjamin Jealous didn't first look at the whole videotape, didn't first ask the farmer if, as proved true, Ms. Sherrod had saved his farm.
"We have been working to turn the page on the sordid civil rights record at USDA," said the Secretary of Agriculture. "This controversy could make it more difficult to move forward on correcting injustices."
Tom Vilsack didn't first look at the whole videotape, didn't first ask if the event took place when Ms. Sherrod worked for USDA, and not 24 years ago when she didn't.
"We could have waited all day. We could have had a media circus," said the Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House. "But we took decisive action and it's a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere."
Jim Messina didn't first look at the whole videotape, didn't first ask if the "decisive action" might not have really been like sending Dreyfus to Devil's Island.
"It's a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere." This atmosphere. This atmosphere exists because the people around him have let this president be dumbed down.
The question used to be "fired up?" - and the rhetorical answer, "ready to go!" The question now is "fired up?" The answer now is, "not ready, because we can't afford the impression of not looking sufficiently presidential and neutral and inviting a media circus in this atmosphere."
To paraphrase President Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, Mr. Messina, Mr. Emanuel, everybody else in this White House who is gradually remodeling this President into something generic and safe and electable in 2012 by the slimmest of margins on the strength of being as media-circus-free and better suited to "this atmosphere" as possible: let Obama be Obama!
And that advice must be heeded by one man above all others. "Can you give us some - specifically, some things that he said that would help us," Mr. Gibbs was asked at this afternoon's press briefing. "Well again," Mr. Gibbs replied, "I think he, he talked about the fact that - that - that a disservice had been done here and an injustice had happened."
He was quoting you, Mr. President. "Fired up?" A disservice has been done. "Fired up?" An injustice had happened." Mr. President, it is beyond admirable that in your position, and at this time of fearful division in this country, that you view yourself as president of everyone, not, as your predecessor did, only as President just of those who voted for you. But you must, at long last, sir, come to terms with the fact that while you have spent these first 18 months and one day of your presidency bending over backwards for those other people, they have spent this same time insisting you are not actually president, or you are a Communist, or you are bent on destroying whatever is starring this week in the paranoid fantasies churned out by Fox News and the farcical Breitbart.
If only for the arrogance of the irony that this crusade to prove you a foreign influence is led by an Australian named Murdoch and his sons who pretend to be British, and his second largest shareholder, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud of Saudi Arabia. Just for that, you, sir, must stand up to this attack on you, and on this nation.
Their game-plan is transparent. They can strand together all the forces of anti-black racism in this country, direct them at you and all for which you and this nation stand, and convince the great unwashed and unthinking out there that not only are they not racists, but you - you Barack Obama, and Van Jones, and Shirley Sherrod, you are the real racists. And so in opposing you, they are not expressing the worst vestige of our past, they are actually standing up against it.
As you stay silent and neutral and everybody's president, they are gradually convincing racists that they are the civil rights leaders and you are Police Chief Bull Connor. And then some idiot at Fox news barks, and your people throw an honorable public servant under the nearest bus, just for the sake of 'decisive action' and the correct way to respond in this atmosphere.
Mr. President, please stop trying to act every minute like some noble neutral figure, chairing a government of equal and dispassionate minds, and contemplative scholars. It is a freaking war out here. And the imagined consensus you seek is years in the future, if ever it is to be re-discovered in this country.
This false consensus has gotten us only the crucifixion of Van Jones, and a racist gold-shilling buffoon speaking from the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th Anniversary of Dr. King's speech. And now it has gotten us Shirley Sherrod. And your answer is to note a "disservice" and an "injustice."
Sir, get a copy of the Michael Douglas movie "The American President." When you get to the line where he says "I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job," hit the rewind button twenty times. "Fired up?" "Fired up?" Anybody? Anybody?
Lastly. Ms. Sherrod? I've got no business speaking on behalf of the people of the United States. That's the President's job. But frankly I don't know why he hasn't done this yet, so I'm going to.
We all would like to apologize to you, and ask you to return to work on our behalf. Or if they want to make you Secretary of Agriculture, or especially White House Deputy Chief of Staff. The President could use somebody like you in there tonight.
But mostly I want to thank you for being honorably, quietly, and until these last few days, anonymously, such an outstanding American. Long ago, there was harm done to you and you responded as nearly all of us on this planet would have. And one day, 24 years ago, you realized that you were not ending that harm, you were just passing it along through vengeance and blindness. And you stopped.
You stopped not with fanfare nor with self-aggrandizing tears, nor in publicized rehab nor on a political stage. You just stopped. And you re-joined the righteous who occupy every corner of our great nation, and indeed every corner of our politics. And even in this hour of undeserved trial and abuse, in your 'Devil's Island of the mind,' you have maintained your dignity and your honor.
Only one of us in all of this, from the mountebanks to the presidential advisors to the unchallenging reporters, only one of us in all this has done her job correctly. You, Ms. Sherrod, know what "decisive action" is and "how to respond in this atmosphere."
And thank God somebody does. Good night and good luck.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END