Shirley Sherrod’s Obama Phone Call and O’Reilly Apology

How an unknown government official regained control of a runaway narrative, and forced apologies from Bill O’Reilly and Barack Obama, by telling the truth.

Shirley Sherrod (AP Photo)

Has anyone ever handled instant, unwanted celebrity more gracefully than Shirley Sherrod, the former Department of Agriculture official whose week began with an unceremonious dismissal from her job and ended with extraordinary public apologies from Bill O’Reilly, Tom Vilsack, and the president himself?

Five days ago, Sherrod was a virtual unknown on the national scene. Four days ago, she was a breakout villain, forced to resign from a job most Americans didn’t even know existed, for comments she made that seemed to suggest she supported racial discrimination. Three days ago, the full version of her speech revealed she was making the exact opposite point. Two days ago, she was offered a new job. And yesterday, after a few rounds of phone tag, she spent seven minutes on the line with a contrite President Obama.

Somehow, the former head of rural development in Georgia managed to plant herself in front of the thresher that is the right-wing blogosphere and cable news, and make it stop.

Somehow, the former head of rural development in Georgia managed to plant herself in front of the thresher that is the right-wing blogosphere and cable news, and make it stop.

Sherrod has been ubiquitous these last few days, fighting against the image of her that first emerged on Andrew Breitbart’s blog and led the head of her department to ask for her resignation.

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Over the course of several days, and a number of carefully chosen media interviews, Sherrod has taken back her own hijacked narrative, speaking honestly about her life experiences. Candor reads as genius these days, when news audiences are so used to talking points and crisis-management strategies. During a week in which the administration trotted out three “real people” to talk to news outlets about unemployment, here was an actual real person, the daughter of a leader of the civil-rights movement. In the parlance of Politico, she won the afternoon.

She also won a rare phoner with Obama.

“He is not someone who has experienced what I have experienced through life, being a person of color,” she told George Stephanopoulos. “He might need to hear some of what I could say to him. I don’t know if that would guide him in a way that he deals with others like me, but I at least would like to have the opportunity to talk to him about it.” And lo, he called.

Before they connected, the highest praise she could muster for Obama was, “He is my president.” In the wake of their conversation, she expressed satisfaction that it had occurred, but had lingering doubts whether she’d rejoin the Department of Agriculture.

If she doesn’t end up taking the new job in government, she could have a vibrant (and undoubtedly more lucrative) career advising others in handling the press. There are plenty of people—in Washington and in Hollywood—who could use her help.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.