EXCLUSIVE: Vilsack offered to resign
By: Roger Simon
August 25, 2010 04:43 AM EDT
Tom Vilsack is a guy who lives for his job, but that did not stop him from telling President Obama a few weeks ago that he was willing to hand in his resignation.Having stepped on the true third rail of American politics – – race – – Vilsack was willing to throw himself from the sled before somebody else did it for him.
In a 75-minute, exclusive interview Tuesday, Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, told me about his suspension of Shirley Sherrod and his subsequent meetings with President Obama about it. Vilsack also spoke frankly about how without the labor of illegal immigrants, the price of food in the United States would cost “three, four, or five times more than it does now.”
More quiet than shy, he even talked about the mosque near ground zero in New York.
As Vilsack has gone from job to job – – from mayor to state legislator to governor of Iowa and now secretary of agriculture – – he has kept a framed quotation on his wall, a famous one by Teddy Roosevelt that talks about the man who struggles in the arena and how “if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Tom Vilsack is neither cold nor timid. He also hates to be late. Which is how he got in so much trouble.
On July 19, Vilsack was hurrying to address a meeting with a group of constituents of an Ohio congressman. As he was about to enter the room, an aide stopped him and held up a BlackBerry with a few sentences from a speech by Shirley Sherrod, the Georgia state director for rural development at the USDA. In the excerpts, Sherrod, who is black, seemed to indicate she had denied help to a white farmer because of his race.
Few members of the public know it, but the Agriculture Department is obsessed by race, having discriminated against minorities and women for decades and now being involved in multibillion-dollar settlements and suits.
On his first day as secretary, Vilsack had told his employees he was determined to improve the civil rights record of the department and hung a large picture on the wall behind his desk of Henry Agard Wallace, the last agriculture secretary from Iowa, shaking the hand of George Washington Carver.
“I had a heightened sense of sensitivity to civil rights in the department,” Vilsack told me. “We were working so hard, and then [the edited Sherrod speech] comes out and I thought: ‘Good Lord, this is not going to help the department.’ ”
With a room full of Ohioans waiting for him and without consulting anybody, Vilsack decided to become someone who “at least fails while daring greatly.”
“I made the decision to place Shirley on administrative leave,” he said. “I was concerned and upset. By the time I got out of the meeting, she had indicated a willingness to resign. Only later did we learn there was a whole lot more to the story.”
It turned out that far from denying aid to the white farmer, Sherrod had helped him and was using the story as a lesson on the evils of racism.
Did you think of resigning? I asked Vilsack.
“Sure,” he said. And he talked to Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Obama senior counselor David Axelrod and then he “indicated to the president I would do whatever I needed to do.”
“And there was no appetite for resignation at the White House,” Vilsack said.
Appetites do grow, however, and Vilsack abjectly apologized to Sherrod. “I made a very hasty decision which I deeply regret,” Vilsack said. “This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell. And I could have done and should have done a better job.”
Obama took a public whack at Vilsack, saying “he jumped the gun,” which Vilsack told me was true and proper. (Neither man mentioned Obama’s jumping of the gun over the matter of the Cambridge, Mass., police department and Henry Louis Gates Jr.)
Sherrod has accepted Vilsack’s apology, but she did not accept a new job with the USDA even after meeting with Vilsack on Tuesday, a few hours before I interviewed him.
Once again, at a news conference, Vilsack apologized. “I disappointed this administration,” he said. “I disappointed the country. And I disappointed Shirley. And I have to live with that.”
The word “disappointed” was an important one. When, after Obama’s victory, Vilsack was summoned to Chicago – – taking a flight from Des Moines to the Windy City four hours early because he was so worried he would be late – – he found a Starbucks and had nine cups of coffee. He was a little nervous. “I hadn’t spent that much time with him,” Vilsack said.
Finally, it was time for the meeting, and Vilsack entered the room to see Obama sitting on a couch with his suit jacket off and his arms spread on the back of the couch. “He looked like a poster for Air Jordan,” Vilsack said. “He has a real wingspread.”
They talked about agriculture, of course, and Obama seemed surprised at Vilsack’s intensity. “You’re pretty passionate about this,” Obama said.
And Vilsack told him about a farm family with seven sons, six of whom had grown up to become doctors or lawyers. But the seventh son became a farmer and got too deeply in debt during the farm crisis of the 1980s, and one day he walked into his barn and hanged himself from a rafter. He was in his late 20s, and his young son found him there.
Then Vilsack talked about devoting his life to helping other farm families.
Obama slapped his knee. “You’re my guy,” he said.
“You won’t be disappointed,” Vilsack replied.
But here it was Tuesday morning with Vilsack saying how he had disappointed the administration, the country and Sherrod.
And you used that word on purpose? I asked Vilsack. Because it harkened back to what you promised the president?
Vilsack nodded. “That came to my mind,” he said. And then he straightened up in his chair and said, “And that is why I am working doubly hard.”
And it seems to be working, at least regarding his relationship with the president.
“He has talked to me twice,” Vilsack said. “Once was at his birthday party, and he put his arm around me and he said, ‘How are you doing? You have had a lousy couple of weeks.’ ” (The president actually used a word other than “lousy.”)
Vilsack said he was concentrating on his job. “Just hang in there,” the president told him.
And Vilsack is. Though the Sherrod incident has hardly made him gun-shy to speak his mind.
When I asked him about the “100 percent border security” that some people dream about to keep illegal immigrants out of the country, Vilsack said: “Somewhere between 50 to 60 percent of the food you eat has been touched by immigrant hands, and it is fair to say some of them are not here as they should be here.
“But if you didn’t have these folks, you would be spending a lot more- – three, four or five times more – – for food, or we would have to import food and have all the food security risks. Neither is what Americans want. What they want is what we have. Which is why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”
Then we talked about that part of America that doesn’t get written about a lot. “People don’t understand rural America,” he said. “Sixteen percent of our population is rural, but 40 percent of our military is rural. I don’t believe that’s because of a lack of opportunity in rural America. I believe that’s because if you grow up in rural America, you know you can’t just keep taking from the land. You’ve got to give something back.”
On Vilsack’s desk is an iron hand grenade in the shape of an ear of corn. It is to remind him that “sometimes you have to blow up the place.”
So I asked him a question so completely explosive that no ordinary agriculture secretary would go anyplace near it.
What do you think of building a mosque near ground zero? I asked.
“You know, I haven’t really thought about it a great deal,” Vilsack said. “I just hope wherever they build it, they have a garden. With lots of trees.”