Let’s NOT have a conversation about race. The calls for Obama to now make the Shirley Sherrod debacle a teachable moment fills me with panic that the president will retreat to the Oval Office and craft a soaring piece of oratory, instead of getting on with the humdrum business of firing the stumbling, bumbling members of his own team who, as the saying goes, can’t find their ass with either hand.
It doesn’t take much imagination to know how much the president must have seethed to be derailed from his policy agenda by this Republican attack mutt, Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart’s genre of dirty tricks were old news even in the Whitewater era. Public figures know from the daily incinerated reputations that any time you open your mouth near a Twitter feed, your career can go up in smoke. It remains amazing that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack didn’t even accord Shirley Sherrod the kind of pause a minor executive in a corporate human resources department would have felt obliged to offer and have someone—anyone—listen to the full tape of Sherrod’s NAACP speech or even read the text.
When Obama heralds another “teachable moment,” it means he has already made an egregious rookie mistake.
But Obama can’t keep doing catch-up outrage two media cycles after the fact. On the campaign trail, he was the chief executive of a laser-guided, on-message apparatus, the candidate who seemed to lead from a head that was always the most level of the people round him. Instead, the president sounded as out of it as his old adversary John McCain when Obama said on Good Morning America that “we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles.” Yeah, right. There is something loose and jittery about the atmosphere round Obama at the moment of which Vilsack's clumsy over-reaction gives us a whiff.
• Rebecca Dana: Shirley Sherrod’s Brilliant Media Play• Lloyd Grove Interviews Andrew BreitbartIt’s as if inside the White House the belief in Obama’s inspirational charisma is still such that every time the ugliness of brute politics intrudes, it’s a startling revelation. The president’s cerebral goals aren’t supposed to be jostled by the coarse irrelevance of media bandits and ideological saboteurs. Except they are. Maybe recognition of this fact is what made Bill Clinton, at almost the same moment in his first mid-term elections in 1994, shove aside purists on his team like George Stephanopoulos and return to his devilish former consigliere, Dick Morris. Clinton knew he had to fight fire with fire, or sleaze with sleaze, that was more deft, more cunning.
That’s why this teachable moment is for the teacher himself. The professor-in-chief is in danger of being remembered for being not only the first black president but also the second Woodrow Wilson. When Obama heralds another “teachable moment,” it means he has already made an egregious rookie mistake—like when we held a silly Beer Summit right in the middle of a serious health-care debate. We have arrived at another damaging distraction through the administration's sloppiness of execution. Even the once-vaunted White House operators could not put the president on the phone with Shirley Sherrod quick enough to short-circuit the chaos. It's time for this gang to start shooting straight and hitting their targets. There is no post-racial or post-partisan way to clean up Andrew Breitbart’s garbage.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.