If Shirley Sherrod Were Earl Butz - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
If Shirley Sherrod Were Earl Butz

So a member (unidentified) of the White House press corps yesterday asks this of press secretary Robert Gibbs during the Shirley Sherrod uproar:

Q: Okay.  Now, you said that there is no truth to the idea that right-wing media spooks this administration.  Yosi Sergant, Van Jones, now Shirley Sherrod have all come under attack from Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Andrew Breitbart — none of them are at this moment members of this administration.  How do you explain those three departures?  Do they really have nothing to do with the campaign that had been waged against them?

Let me help you out, Mr. Reporter. And you too, Robert.

Does the name Earl Butz ring a bell?

If the subject is attacks from the press that prompt presidential firings, this is nothing new. And it certainly existed long before the arrival of Messrs. Beck, O’Reilly and Breitbart.

In 1976, Earl Butz was, like Shirley Sherrod, working for the Agriculture Department. As a matter of fact, he was the Tom Vilsack of his day — Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Agriculture. A crusty white Indiana farmer, ex-Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University, an Eisenhower Assistant Secretary of Agriculture and delegate to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Butz, like Shirley Sherrod today, was given to unfortunate expressions that indicated he appeared to see things through a racial lens.

But unlike Shirley Sherrod, he didn’t go around and give a public speech in which he discussed a farmer of a different race by referring to “his kind.” In fact, as it turned out, there was not a scintilla of evidence that whatever Butz’s racial thoughts were that they surfaced in his professional career in the Eisenhower administration, at the UN, or at Purdue or in his service to Ford and Richard Nixon as Agriculture Secretary. No, Mr. Butz’s problem appeared differently.

You see, Earl Butz told a racial joke. A joke that was both obscene and racist. In a private conversation to someone else, on a plane ride.  Six weeks before it made news. One of the people who heard the joke was ex-White House Counsel John W. Dean, who eventually told the tale, without naming Mr. Butz, to…wait for it… General Stanley McChrystal’s favorite magazine, Rolling Stone. After six weeks, the fact that someone in the Ford Cabinet had told a racist private joke was out. Shortly, other liberal media, in this case New Times, a magazine of the day now long gone, linked Butz to the joke.

It was October, 1976. Ford and running mate Bob Dole were engaged in a tight race against Georgia ex-Governor Jimmy Carter and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale.  Suddenly, the Secretary of Agriculture’s private and clearly racist joke was not only front page news in the New York Times and the Washington Post, it was leading the three nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC.

Over and over and over again Butz and Ford and Dole were pounded by the liberal media of the day on Butz’s private joke. There was no Fox, no talk radio, no “other side” to the issue. Earl Butz was guilty, case closed. Republican candidates, likewise pounded now by the media, made it known they didn’t want Butz campaigning for them in their rural districts either.

Governor Carter said the remarks were “disgraceful” and he would never allow anyone who even hinted at racist feelings to serve in his government, conveniently skipping over his own racist appeals when running for the Georgia governorship. Miraculously neither the New York Times nor any liberal media outlet brought up Carter’s own behavior of only six years earlier.

When he had extensively courted Georgia political boss and segregationist Roy Harris for his support, Harris famous for saying, among other things, as reported by Carter biographer and ex-NY Timesman Jim Wooten: “N….s are n….s and no amount of crossbreeding is going to help them any. The tiniest drop of n….r blood will spoil a man. History shows that. Everybody knows that, and those who don’t know that have probably got some n…r blood in them, that’s all.”

Posh. Racism, schmacism.  What’s the big deal? Mr. Harris was recruited personally by Jimmy Carter and so what? Carter avidly campaigned for the segregationist vote with people that made Butz look like Mary Poppins. But…not a whisper by liberal media in all of this flurry over racism. 

Earl Butz was not a liberal. And the liberal media was in a fury. They wanted a scalp. So they went to Mondale, who right on cue said indignantly that expressing racist beliefs while serving in government “it’s like poison, cancer in the society.” There are, said Mr. Liberal to his approving Liberal Media audience, “certain things that decency and humanity require and one is respect for people of different races and background.” He demanded Butz be fired.

The Carter allies in the liberal media kept pounding. Daily, hourly not yet available for technology reasons. There was a New York Times reminder that Mr. Butz had once seemed to mock Italians by saying with a laugh in reference to Pope Paul VI’s opposition to birth control: “He no playa da game, he no maka da rules.”

Long story short, after days on end of pounding by the liberal media — there was no such thing as a “conservative media” to ponder whether Butz was actually good at his job, whether he was genuine racist or just a guy who liked jokes and told them all no matter who they offended — Earl Butz was fired.

Although they did not involve race, pre-conservative media there were similar liberal media firestorms over Eisenhower running mate Richard Nixon in 1952, Ike’s chief of staff Sherman Adams, Reagan national security adviser Richard Allen, Bush 41 chief of staff John Sununu , Bush 43 Labor Secretary-designate Linda Chavez, etc., etc., etc. The list is long.

In other words, having made this sort of thing an art form, now that there is a serious conservative media, liberals in the media object. They are, well, horrified don’t you know. Not apologetic. Not concerned about double-standards. Just angry.

Poor Yuri. Poor Van. Poor Shirley.

Memories are either short — or short for a reason.

Jeffrey Lord
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Jeffrey Lord, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is a former aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. An author and former CNN commentator, he writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com. His new book, Swamp Wars: Donald Trump and The New American Populism vs. The Old Order, is now out from Bombardier Books.
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