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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

White House Apologizes to Former USDA Employee; Interview With Shirley Sherrod

Aired July 21, 2010 - 22:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone.

Tonight: BP comes closer to killing the well, but also burying the only hard evidence we will ever have about just how much oil was flowing into the Gulf. We're "Keeping Them Honest" on that.

But we begin tonight with the smearing -- the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. Well, the White House apologized today. So did the guy who fired her. And she has been offered a new job. We will talk to her in a minute to see if she is going to accept that new job.

But the damage has been done. And a woman who gave the speech about the change in her outlook and her heart has been dragged through the mud and has had to prove she is not a racist. This can happen to anyone. And it is not right. Imagine it happening to you.

The truth is, it can happen to anyone, and the truth does matter. But we live in an age where that simple fact is increasingly lost, as people on the right and the left, people who view things through the prism of politics and ideology, seek to score points by scoring scalps.

Cable news is part of the problem. There's no doubt about that. The left and the right have their own anchors who only report on the stories that suit their slant. That's their right.

But we think the truth matters. It's even worse on the Internet, where there are no standards and where anonymity allows for the cruelest expressions of vitriol and hate.

Now, if you watched much of the coverage of Shirley Sherrod today, what seems to have been lost in much of it is the man who first posted this video, which was clearly edited to deceive and slander Ms. Sherrod. His name is Andrew Breitbart.

Now, I don't know him. I have never met him. But watching him try to weasel his way out of taking responsibility for what he did to Ms. Sherrod today is a classic example of what's wrong with our national discourse.

Andrew Breitbart is a conservative, but of course there are liberals who are just as narrowed-minded and who are also refuse to admit when they are wrong. Breitbart posted the clip on Monday on his Web site. Nearly everything Mr. Breitbart said about Shirley Sherrod was either wrong or somehow slanted to make a larger point about racism in the NAACP.

He initially said her speech showed a government official who allowed racist views to influence her work with a white farmer. But we now know it was a speech about her change of heart 24 years ago, when she wasn't even at the USDA.

Today, Mr. Breitbart could have just apologized, said he was wrong, but he didn't. Bullies never do. Nor do ideologues in our divided country. Instead, he now claims this was never about Ms. Sherrod; it was about the NAACP and what he says is their racism based on the audience's reaction to her speech.

Here's what he said last night on "JOHN KING, USA."


ANDREW BREITBART, PUBLISHER, BREITBART.COM: This tape is about the NAACP. Its raison d'etre is about nondiscrimination.

And when Shirley Sherrod is talking there in which she expresses a discriminatory attitude towards white people, the audience responds with applaud -- with applause -- and the NAACP agrees with me. And it rebuked her.


COOPER: Well, the fact is, there was no applause when Ms. Sherrod was talking about the white farmer.

And we will talk to members of the audience who were there that night about the reaction that they saw and heard and that they, themselves, had.

You know, Breitbart also said today that there were cheers over racist comments. Again, the facts do not bear him out.

The truth matters.

Now, the closest Mr. Breitbart came to an apology today was this comment.


BREITBART: I feel bad that they made this about her. And I feel sorry that they made this about her. I'm not sure if that was done because they rushed to judgment or whether they wanted to make it about Shirley vs. me, because that's what it's become.


COOPER: He goes on to say he's sympathetic to what Ms. Sherrod has gone through. Notice the passive voice here, because -- his words -- -- quote -- "They went after her, and not the NAACP."

It's like the arsonist saying, I'm sorry, ma'am, for the water damage done by firefighters. He started the fire. Andrew Breitbart said the clip he first posted proved black racism happened now at the USDA and the NAACP. It didn't. He said it proved racism in the crowd. You can decide for yourself about that. We will play you the tapes and you will talk -- we will hear from audience members.

He claims to feel sorry for the victim, but blames others acting on his misleading information for hurting her. It was a phony story. It isn't the first and it isn't the first about race. But why let the truth stop you, when you're making political points? That's the way a lot of people seem to think these days on left and the right.

Now, you can blame the media for acting as a conveyor belt. You can blame the Obama administration for being hyper-sensitive about race. Race-baiters, smear artists and game-players have learned that trumped-up stories about race pay off, because people care about race. But they care more, we think, about the truth. And the truth matters.

It certainly does to Shirley Sherrod and certainly should to all of us.

Now, as we mentioned, the White House apologized today. Then so did her former boss at the Agriculture Department, Secretary Tom Vilsack. Here is what he said.


TOM VILSACK, U.S. AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: This is a good woman. She has been put through hell.

And I could have done and should have done a better job. I want to learn from that experience. I want the agency and department to learn from that experience. And I want us to be stronger for it.

I want to renew the commitment of this department to a new era in civil rights. I want to close the chapter on a very difficult period in civil rights. So, I accept responsibility. And I -- I -- I don't think -- the buck stops with me, as it should.


COOPER: Shirley Sherrod is with us now in New York, her first live interview since getting a new job offer from Secretary Vilsack.

Ms. Sherrod, what did you think, first of all? Were you satisfied with Secretary Vilsack's apology?

SHIRLEY SHERROD, FORMER USDA OFFICIAL: Yes, I was satisfied with it. In fact, I told him I appreciated the apology. And I know that we need to try to move forward from here.

COOPER: He said that he offered you another job at the USDA. What was the job? And -- and are you going to accept it?

SHERROD: Well, I haven't seen the full offer. He mentioned it. He mentioned something in civil rights with the Office of Outreach. I just don't know. I told him I need time to think about it. And I truly do need time to think about it.

COOPER: What's -- what's the thought process? I mean, has this changed your -- your -- your belief in the agency? What -- what's the thought process?

SHERROD: Well, I -- I know the secretary says that we need to deal with the issue of civil rights. I believe he's convinced that we do need to do that.

I need to know that the -- the department is truly wanting to do that. And that would mean more than just the secretary of agriculture. That's why I would want to weigh the seriousness of others and their commitment to once and for all ridding the USDA of the civil rights issues, the -- the discrimination issues that have been there for so long.

You know, I wouldn't want to be someone just out there swimming in the river all by myself, and the burden of -- of discrimination is placed on me.

I haven't actually seen the offer in writing. He did say he would send that to me by e-mail. And I was actually on a flight in Atlanta when he told me that. I haven't -- I just arrived here in New York. So, I haven't had a chance to look at just what it is he's offering yet.

COOPER: Yesterday, when we talked, you had said, based on what you had initially been told, you thought that this had come from the White House initially, that -- that the White House wanted you fired.

They have, all day, said today they did not weigh in on this in advance, that this was a decision by Secretary Vilsack. A, do you still believe that this originally came from the White House? And, if so, do you think the president owes you an apology?

SHERROD: Well, I firmly believe that, if the president -- if not the president, someone there at the White House was involved in that.

You know, he is the president of the United States of America. And I have received an apology from the secretary. It would be great to talk to the president, but, you know, I would not insist upon an apology from him.

COOPER: When you heard -- I don't know if you heard Andrew Breitbart today saying -- you know, not really apologizing, but -- but saying he felt sympathy toward you because this was made to be about you, and not the NAACP, do you buy that?

SHERROD: No, I don't.

You know, it was all about me to get at the NAACP. If he wanted to just get at the NAACP, he should have figured out a way -- out a way to go directly at them. He knew exactly what would happen when he put that tape out there in the way that he did. And he knew I would be the fall guy for that.

COOPER: What do you think his motivation was?

SHERROD: You know, exactly what was happening in the very beginning.

He set out -- he didn't care who he destroyed to try to do whatever it is -- I wish I could understand why they want to divide so much. I don't understand the thinking that he and so many more like him have. You know, they don't care. What is it they're after? Why is it that they cannot think that we can all live and work together in this great country?

COOPER: And -- and, I mean, the last 48 hours have got to be the most surreal, the most upsetting of your life, or -- or close to it.

What is -- I mean, what is the -- the lesson you have learned here, if anything? I mean, what is -- what is it you want to tell other people? Because, I mean, it seems to me this could happen to anybody. What happened to you, anybody could take a speech somebody made, cut it down, put it on the Internet, and brand somebody a racist for whatever ideological reason they have.

SHERROD: You're certainly right. It could happen to anyone in this country.

And it's sad that we have -- we have gotten to this level. It's sad that we have gotten to this place with it in this country, that we can't -- can't see people for what they are. We can't believe in people. We can't give people a chance. It's all about me and what I want. Forget anyone else.

COOPER: Well, Shirley Sherrod, I appreciate you being with us tonight. You know, we will keep in touch with you and -- and continue to follow this. This is not a story that's going away anytime soon. And we obviously want to hear about what happens with your job.

Ms. Sherrod, appreciate it. Thank you.

We want you to weigh in as well. Join the live chat right now at

Later: Andrew Breitbart says the tape shows the audience applauding racism. That's what he said today. We are going to hear directly from audience members. You are going to hear the tape yourselves. There actually was no applause whatsoever during the speech when talking about the white farmer.

Later, we break down exactly how Shirley Sherrod's story played out from the moment she learned she was about to become, against her will, a household name.


COOPER: well, the edited tape cost Shirley Sherrod her job. The conservative blogger who posted it still claims it proves the organization she was speaking to, the NAACP, is racist. He uses this portion of the clip as evidence. He says the audience applauds racist language.



SHERROD: But he had come to me for help.


SHERROD: What he didn't know is, while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide just how much help I was going to give him.



COOPER: Well, did you see or hear the crowd bursting into applause? You can decide for yourself.

We decided to ask five of the people in the room about their reactions. You heard some people laughing. You heard -- saw some people nodding their heads, kind of murmuring responses.

Olivia Pearson, Mary Coley (ph), Hal Pressley, the Reverend Rudolph Porter, and Yvonne Lott, I talked to them earlier today.


COOPER: Hal, you're the president of the NAACP chapter that held this event.

And this guy Andrew Breitbart, initially -- it's interesting, because his explanation and his description has kind of changed over the last two days. Initially, he said that the audience was -- quote -- "laughing and applauding as she described as she maltreated the white farmer."

Now, on ABC today, he claimed that you were cheering -- or that the audience was cheering racism and -- and that you see some people nodding their heads and murmuring. But was anyone cheering racism?



Like I told you before, we were acknowledging that we understand what she is saying, where she's coming from. And I think that that gentleman, he is in sinking sand. I mean, whatever he tried to accomplish is unfolding on him. And it's not to his advantage. So, what do you expect him to do?

COOPER: You think he's now just covering his tracks? PRESSLEY: Exactly.

REV. RUDOLPH PORTER, ATTENDED SHIRLEY SHERROD SPEECH: Also, Anderson, this benefit was honoring young people for academic excellence and excellence in various high school endeavors.


PORTER: And she was inspiring young people, talking about man's humanities to man. And her theme was really, if I can help somebody, then my living will not be in vain.

And she was challenging us to help somebody, using our time and our talents. And she made that appeal to the young people in this small rural town in Douglas, Georgia, that is known for to be tobacco, cotton, peanuts, chicken. And she was saying, you can use your talents and come back to your community and make it a better place.

COOPER: The other thing that Andrew Breitbart had said on Sean Hannity's program is that -- you know, that people were nodding in assent, and kind of, you know, call and response, and responding to her speech as it went, but that, early on, people didn't know that it was a story of the way her attitudes had changed through her experiences, how she -- because of what had happened to her dad, she started off thinking one way and how she came to another way of thinking.

And -- and what -- what this guy Breitbart is now saying is that, when the speech started you, in the audience, didn't know that she had changed her way of thinking, and that you were agreeing with her when she was talking about, you know, sending a white couple to a white attorney, to somebody of -- quote, unquote -- "their own kind."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, what I got out of that was that -- I had talked with her before about this same situation. And I knew what she was talking about. I knew that she was saying, based on what happened at that time, it is what changed her.

YVONNE LOTT, ATTENDED SHIRLEY SHERROD SPEECH: In other words, I was sitting there thinking, as she was talking, that I'm almost what happened to me when I was 13 years old, because my father was killed the same way, and nothing was done about it. And she got beyond that. I had learned to live with that, even Though you just -- as a child, you just think, my father is dead. Somebody else killed him. You don't know what to think as a child. But, as you got -- as I got older, I just learned to live with it.


PORTER: Anderson, I sat two seats away from her. And it was crystal-clear that she gave a chronology of what life was like in rural Georgia as a -- as a youth, and how she went to college and committed herself to coming back, trying to make her community a better place, and she encouraged us to do so. So, it was crystal- clear with me that this lady was talking about, not for myself, but doing something to help others. So, when I heard Breitbart the other night on "Sean Hannity," I immediately got on the telephone and started calling my friends saying, what is this guy talking about? He must have been at an event some -- other than the event I attended. He was completely out of context. And I think he had a hidden agenda that was detrimental. And Breitbart owes this is lady an apology.

OLIVIA PEARSON, ATTENDED SHIRLEY SHERROD SPEECH: I have known Ms. Sherrod for, what, 11 years now, so I knew better than -- than what you're saying that he's trying to indicate, that -- the history about that.

So, that's totally untrue. And in terms of saying that the NAACP was cheering on this kind of behavior or attitudes or whatever, you know, is just totally absurd, you know, because the people who were there, first of all, they -- they were not all NAACP members anyway.

But, to say that, you know, we were cheering something on and then learned something else about it, that's totally untrue. I have known Shirley for 11 years, and I know that that's not her character.

COOPER: If you were doing a sermon about this, what is the lesson here for all of us in -- in this incident, in the aftermath to it? What's the -- what's the -- what's the takeaway?

PORTER: Let the work I have done speak for me, not for myself, but for others. Help somebody.

PEARSON: I would like to add, if I may, the message is still -- is also to -- to let America know, to let all of us know that -- that our work is not done. With this surfacing like this about it being a racial issue, all of the -- the publicity that has come up about it, it lets us know that our work is not done. We still have a long way to go.

COOPER: Listen, I appreciate all of you -- you joining together on this evening and -- and talking about what you heard and experienced at this night.

Mary Coley (ph), Hal Pressley, Olivia Pearson, Reverend Rudolph Porter, and Yvonne Lott, thank you very much.

PORTER: Thank you.



COOPER: Up next tonight: how the smearing of Shirley Sherrod unfolded. Who got fooled? Who took the bait? And who fanned the flames? We're "Keeping Them Honest."

Also tonight: the latest on whether there could be trouble for efforts to finally kill BP's leaking well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: You know, if you think about it, if Shirley Sherrod had not fought back as she did, if she had not gone on television and started telling her version of events, and had the white farming family to back her up, this story would have turned out very differently.

Even by the 24-hour news standards, the -- the -- the smearing of Shirley Sherrod, well, it was turned on its head at warp speed. On Monday she was forced to resign from her job at the USDA, today showered with apologies and offered a new job.

From smears to mea culpas, it all happened incredibly quickly.

Randi Kaye breaks it down for us.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just after 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, an edited clip of Shirley Sherrod's speech is posted on, a Web site run by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. Below that first video link, a blog written by Breitbart begins, with no hint of irony, "Context is everything."

Indeed, it is.

SHERROD: He was trying to show me that he was superior to me

KAYE: At 12:51 Monday afternoon, Breitbart tweets about the speech: "Federal employee brags about discriminating against whites."

SHERROD: Racist acts that we had to endure.

KAYE: Suddenly, it's all over YouTube, and Sherrod is cast as a racist.

(on camera): Sherrod says she first got wind of the controversy last Thursday, when a stranger e-mailed her, taunting her about her comments. She says she alerted the USDA and was told someone would look into it. But then she says she never heard another word about it until Monday, when the USDA, she says, called her at least three times, pressuring her to resign, claiming the White House wanted her out.

So, at around 6:00 p.m. Monday, Sherrod pulls over to the side of the road and e-mails her resignation.

(voice-over): Conservative talkers, unaware she's resigned, sound the alarm. About 8:00 p.m. Monday, FOX News Channel airs the video.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Wow. Well, that is simply unacceptable. And Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KAYE: Late Monday, Secretary Tom Vilsack accepts Sherrod's resignation and issues a statement, saying -- quote -- "There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA."

The NAACP backs Vilsack and, at midnight, issues a press release blasting Sherrod, claiming it's appalled by her actions, this even though the speech was given at an NAACP event. No one at the organization had clearly bothered to learn more about what was said.

It wasn't until early the next morning we learned this portion of the tape was only a snippet of the full 40-minute speech.

Sherrod told CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING":


SHERROD: The stuff that FOX and the Tea Party does is scaring the administration. I told -- I told them, get the whole tape and look at the whole tape, and look at how I tell people we have to get beyond race and start working together.


KAYE: Tuesday afternoon, about 3:40 p.m., Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defends his firing of Sherrod.

TOM VILSACK, U.S. AGRICULTURE SECRETARY: When I saw the statements and the context of the statements, it -- it -- I determined that it would make it difficult for her to do her job as a rural development director.

KAYE: Difficult? Vilsack acknowledges there was more to the speech, but said it didn't matter -- 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, the NAACP does a 180. It releases a new statement, after finally watching and posting the entire speech on its Web site.

This time, it says -- quote -- "We were snookered by FOX News and Tea Party activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she, Sherrod, had harmed white farmers because of racial bias."

BENJAMIN JEALOUS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NAACP: What we didn't realize is, it had been spliced and diced six ways from Sunday so as to completely hide this beautiful story of transformation.

KAYE: That evening on CNN, John King presses Breitbart about why he posted just a portion of the speech. Breitbart dodges the questions, never gives clear answers about anything.


JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING, USA": Did you reach out to her and say, what incident are you talking about? When did this happen?

BREITBART: This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party. And this is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KAYE: Around 2:00 a.m. Wednesday, with the full tape now public, the USDA decides to take a second look and review the case. Around 5:00 p.m., after days of ignoring their employee's explanations and relying on a snippet of videotape instead, the USDA apologizes and offers Sherrod a job.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New Orleans.


COOPER: Well, up next: the investigation into racial bias at the Justice Department. It centers on a case involving the New Black Panther Party. A former lawyer has testified that the Obama White House has a double standard on race in who it prosecutes -- details on that ahead.

Plus, a possible tropical storm is brewing tonight, threatening to shut down work in the Gulf. Chad Myers is tracking the weather system for us nearing the Bahamas. We will have the latest on that.


COOPER: Well, tonight, weather is again threatening to delay work in the Gulf. Take a look at a live satellite image of a tropical weather system approaching the Bahamas. Now, there is a chance it could become a tropical depression or storm over the next couple of days. Meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking the system. He has the latest -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Anderson, not looking too impressive right now. At least the last couple of images getting a little bit of color. But most of the day there was nothing over what we considered to be the center of this tropical wave.

Watch now just the last couple of frames. All the color that starts to pop up over Haiti, over the D.R. and also into the ocean. Now what does that mean? Well, it actually means that there's going to be an awful lot of rain tonight over Haiti, in obviously places and to people that certainly don't need it and could even see some flooding from it, as well.

The storm is going to move off toward the west into the northwest, into the Bahamas. Now there has been an airplane in this, not a hurricane hunter, but a high-level G-4, a Gulf Stream high-level aircraft, back and forth across the atmosphere today, taking measurements, dropping little weather dropsans (ph) or weather balloons that don't go up, they go down. And so they will know what this atmosphere looks like. So when we put the computer models together for tomorrow, they will know a lot more than what they're knowing today.

But for now, this computer model and all of them that we have here -- this is on Storm Pulse (ph), one of our Web sites we use all the time. Taking that -- taking that parallel line, this is a big change and a big difference from one side to the other in how it affects the oil areas.

If the storm travels up here, somewhere up here, then really there's no affect on the oil whatsoever. The storm never gets that strong. It's not in the Gulf of Mexico -- Mexico very long, and the wind is offshore.

If the storm travels through here, the Florida Straits, and then all the way over toward Houston, the storm is at a completely different and longer time in the warm water, and the wind is this way because of the direction of where it is on the oil slick itself. That would push more oil on land.

Right now the storm is not impressive. There's a lot more time for this, though, to get into the Gulf of Mexico. We're talking 90 or so hours just to get here. And in that amount of time, a storm can get a lot bigger -- Anderson.

COOPER: Chad, thanks for the latest. Appreciate it.

We're going to have more on the Gulf oil disaster coming up.

But first let's get caught up on other stories that we're following. Joe Johns has a "360 News & Business Bulletin" -- Joe.


No more taxpayer-funded bailouts. That's the promise from President Obama today as signed the historic Wall Street reform bill into law. The law also sets up a consumer protection agency to police loans and credit cards. It's the largest financial overhaul since the Great Depression.

Testimony wrapped up today in the federal corruption trial of former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, without him taking the stand. Closing arguments are set to begin Monday. Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to charges he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Obama.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is looking into allegations that Mel Gibson's ex-girlfriend tried to extort money from him to keep those explosive audio recordings, allegedly of them, a secret. This is the couple in happier times. There's a domestic abuse investigation case under way. A court hearing on that issue is set for Thursday.

And off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, a whale leaps out of the water and crash lands on the deck of a sailboat. Believe it or not, the two people on board were not hurt; neither was the whale. The boat wasn't that lucky. The mast and rigging were destroyed. A tourist on a nearby boat recorded this video.

And, as I hear it, it turns out whales have really lousy eyesight. Who knew?

COOPER: Amazing. Amazing picture. Joe, thanks. Next on 360, race and politics. Some conservatives are saying that the Obama administration discriminates. We're going to take a look at whether that's true, what the facts are. We'll take a closer look at the Justice Department case that is at the center of the firestorm.

Later the latest on the BP spill. Details on plans to seal the well as early as this weekend, weather permitting. And the questions that remain about BP's liability and what it means about ever actually knowing the actual amount of oil coming out of that well. Coming up.


COOPER: The Shirley Sherrod incident is just the latest controversy about race and race relations for the Obama administration. A lot of conservative bloggers are pointing to another story, a story of the Justice Department and charges of voter intimidation against the New Black Panther Party.

Joe Johns tonight has the "Raw Politics."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it might be a little intimidating that you have a stick in your hand.

JOHNS (voice-over): Election day Philadelphia 2008. Two members of the radical black nationalist group the New Black Panthers stand in front of the polling station. One of them holds a billy club. The Bush administration files a voter intimidation suit against the group.

But in 2009, the Obama administration narrows the scope of the case, asking for and getting a court order only against the guy with the club. The Justice Department said it didn't have enough evidence against the group as a whole.

In a statement to CNN, the New Black Panther Party denied voter intimidation and said it did not condone the acts of the member with the night stick. That may be hard to believe for some people, given the threatening behavior, as captured in this January 2009 "National Geographic" documentary on the New Black Panthers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to have to kill some crackers. You're going to have to kill some of their babies.

JOHNS: Asked about that incident, the New Black Panther Party told CNN this man did not speak for the party or reflect its policies.

The right-wing media has pounced on the story, suggesting Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama let the New Black Panthers off the hook.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Well, maybe it was a little favor for all of the support of the New Panthers -- the New Black Panthers that they gave Barack Obama during the election. JOHNS (on camera): All of it has led the Civil Rights Commission to launch an investigation into the Obama administration's handling of the case.

As part of that investigation, a former Justice Department attorney has testified that the Obama administration has a double standard on race, a policy of not prosecuting possible civil rights violations by black people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Julie Fernandez, the deputy assistant attorney general under the Obama administration, said that the voting section will never or will not, at least while she's there, bring any more cases against blacks or other national minorities. Is that essentially what you heard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is. It is what I heard.

JOHNS (voice-over): Past administrations have been accused of ignoring civil rights violations by whites against minorities. This time, the accusation is reversed.

A conservative member of that Civil Rights Commission, Bush appointee Abigail Thernstrom, dismisses the New Black Panthers as not worth taking seriously but says she'd like to hear more about whether the Obama administration, particularly the Justice Department, is meting out unequal justice.

ABIGAIL THERNSTROM, VICE CHAIR, U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION: Now the question on the table, it's morphed into a much larger question, which is are there racial double standards in the way that civil rights legislation is being enforced in the Justice Department? Well, that's a good question.

JOHNS: When asked if Julie Fernandez made such a statement, a Justice Department official said, quote, "The department makes enforcement decisions based on the merits, not the race, gender or ethnicity of any party. We are committed to comprehensive and vigorous enforcement of both the civil and criminal provisions of the federal laws that prohibit voter intimidation."

While many whites and blacks think the administration has a good handle on racial issues, Mr. Obama's critics disagree.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


COOPER: Well, let's dig deeper now. Joining me, CNN senior political analyst and former presidential adviser, David Gergen; John Ridley, founding editor of; and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum joins us by phone.

David Gergen, what about this New Black Panther Party controversy?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Anderson, after the events of the past 48 hours, I think we ought to be very cautious in coming to a conclusion one way or the other. Facts are still scanty. It does seem to me, based on what we've seen, it deserves deeper investigation by the Civil Rights Commission. And I think the Justice Department owes a more complete explanation to us.

I would add one thing. This is one of the kinds of things that Republicans are going to use in the political campaign of 2010 to say, "That's why we need the House of Representatives back, so we'll have subpoena power and we can actually investigate these things and not leave it to the Obama administration."

COOPER: David Frum, you wrote today about the Shirley Sherrod incident, in particular about Andrew Breitbart's role in it and kind of the lack of focus on him over the last 24 hours. Why do you think that is?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER (via phone): I think conservatives find it painful when one of their own is called out. I think Andrew Breitbart really was called out here. He hasn't seemed to have done any due diligence before posting this clip that did so much damage to a woman's reputation and her career.

There's a strong "circle the wagons" mentality among conservatives, and look a lot of that is understandable. They're shut out of power. We're shut out of power. You feel helpless and you feel nervous.

At the same time -- and you also feel that you're constantly are on the receiving end of unfair accusations. But it's not a good response to fabricate accusations of racism directed at you to fabricate them and redirect them back.

COOPER: John, I know you've written, actually, for one of Andrew Breitbart's Web sites in the past. I think the last time was about a year ago. You're probably not surprised by the tone of what he wrote. This is something, obviously, both liberals and conservatives -- I mean, ideologues tend to see through -- things through a very limited lens. But should we accept it? I mean, should this stuff be just part of the national discourse now?

JOHN RIDLEY, THATMINORITYTHING.COM: Accusations of racism flying around? No, absolutely not.

But I don't even know that it's ideologues. Remember Geraldine Ferraro during the primary election, someone you would think would be the last person to throw around racism or bigotry, accuse Barack Obama of simply being lucky to be a black man to get where he was.

There was also the comments that then-Senator Clinton had made about Lyndon Johnson being necessary to push civil rights through. And whether that was true or not, you know, the problem is, is that race gets so ginned up. People like us, we can sit around and we can talk about it; we can intellectualize it.

It was interesting. Shirley Sherrod, when she talked about buried in all the things that she said, it wasn't about black and white. It's about the haves and the have-nots. And we see a lot of haves who do a really good job of ginning up a lot of have-nots over race. And it's unfortunate, but those are the people who are really, in my opinion, causing a lot of the issues.

COOPER: David Gergen, though, I mean, David Frum raised a point that, you know, conservatives circle the wagons. Liberals do that, as well. I don't want to make this just bashing conservatives. But it seems to me ideologues do that. And it seems, in this day and age, people don't like to just say they were wrong. I mean, it's all about seeing things through your political prism.

GERGEN: And also by scoring political points. I mean, I think David Frum is being very kind to Andrew Breitbart. Listen, there was a certain malice involved in this. Let's be straight about that.

But there is a "circle the wagons" mentality on both sides. You're right about that, Anderson. And even today, I must tell you that, as much as I admired the secretary of agriculture for coming out and saying, "I take the hit on this. I take the blame. It's my responsibility," there has been a circle of wagons around this within the administration. And the story doesn't add up.

I mean, the underlying story about who talked to whom between the White House and the Agriculture Department, and according to what Shirley Sherrod has told us doesn't seem to add up.

COOPER: David -- David Frum, do you agree with that? Do you think it adds up?

FRUM: It looks like they panicked. It looks like they have some over -- over-twitchy decision making, and they don't seem to show the kind of loyalty down that was often shown during the Bush administration. We're rediscovering some of the merits of the management style of George Bush, who did back his people, sometimes to a fault, but he did back them.

I agree with you, Anderson, about not making this a point about one faction or another. Factionalism is the problem. We're at a time of tremendous economic strain for a lot of people. And they want -- they want answers; they want solutions; and they want to see, I think, alternatives to the measures this administration has offered, measures that aren't working.

It is too easy to offer them instead something inflammatory, to offer them a discussion or battle over race. What they need to hear from conservatives are better ideas about how to create jobs and raise incomes.

COOPER: I just think, John, more people would believe what people say if somebody, whether they're on the left or the hard left or the hard right, would just every now and then say, "You know what? I was wrong about that, and I was seeing it through a limited lens rather than" -- I mean, basically Andrew Breitbart doubled down, you know, in the wake of this and said, "Well, I wasn't attacking Shirley Sherrod. I was -- I was talking about the NAACP and larger issues."

RIDLEY: Right. "I put this woman's tape up there. I say that she's a racist, but I'm talking about somebody else."

You know, I think all of us would like to think that we were full of forgiveness and when somebody says, "Look, I was wrong, we're going to forgive them." But unfortunately, I think we live in a culture that people are just going to -- you say double down, Anderson. I think then people triple down and say, you know, if you say you're wrong, then you're actually admitting that you screwed up in the first place, and it's just attack, attack, attack.

As David said, we're living in a highly charged, highly politicized atmosphere, and everything has become politicized. Race has always been political. And the idea that we can have intelligent discourse about it at this point, with so many other things happening, it's not going to happen. Unfortunate, but it's not going to happen.

COOPER: Even the reaction to this story, liberals use it as a way to bludgeon conservatives for what they did without looking into the mirror for things they have done in the past, as well. It's just frustrating when you're trying to kind of look at things as -- just as they are, rather than kind of through a limited lens.

Anyway, David Frum, appreciate it. I really enjoyed your writing today on this matter.

John Ridley, David Gergen, thank you very much, as well.

Up next, why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wants to talk to BP CEO Tony Hayward and why, after several days and countless phone calls, we still can't get an answer about the flow rate. You call this transparency? We're "Keeping Them Honest," next.


COOPER: Well, tonight CNN has learned that Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, has been invited by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to answer questions about whether BP influenced Scotland's release of a Libyan terrorist who bombed Pan Am Flight 103.

You've heard the allegation, probably, that a deal was cut to protect British business interests in Libya. The decision to release the terrorist has been blasted by Britain and the White House now. We're told the committee wants Hayward to answer these questions next week.

As for the spill, well, after months of setbacks and failed attempts, BP says the best chance of sealing off the well could happen this weekend with the static kill operation, meaning heavy mud is going to be pumped into the blowout preventer, forcing oil back beneath the sea floor. As Chad Myers told us earlier, there's a threat of extreme weather in the next couple of days. And if that happens, operations could be put on hold.

Now, the only way to accurately determine the company's liability in all of this is to measure the flow rate. How much oil actually poured out of that well? Now, the only way we can know that is by measuring it. And scientists say there are ways to get the flow rate now, but we just can't get a straight answer about it.

First we asked BP about who determines the flow rate. BP said, well, hey, talk to Unified Command. We did that. We're told they had to kick it upstairs to senior officials for an answer. That was yesterday. Today Thad Allen said establishing a flow rate is under discussion, and it's a topic being taken up by its scientists and by BP.

So we went to the White House, asking it, are they going to require BP to reopen the well so that an accurate measure of flow can be measured? The White House said take it up with Thad Allen. I spoke to James Carville about all of this earlier today.


COOPER: If the weather holds, it's possible this weekend they could do the static kill and once and for all kill this -- this well. That would mean we would never know the actual amount of oil that was pouring out of there on any given day.

CARVILLE: That's what it means, so BP lawyers would be able to argue that. Last night I said it was $7,000 fine. That's incorrect.

COOPER: Forty-three hundred dollars.

CARVILLE: I stand corrected on that. But that's a lot of money.

COOPER: That's how much they would have to pay, $4,300 per barrel of oil?

CARVILLE: If they show -- that's the top. As I understand it, that's the top they'd have to pay.

I think it's unbelievable that we never got the instrumentation on there. And the comical thing is, is that BP said they really didn't care what the flow rate was. Of course they cared.

And -- but, you know, science is pretty good. And I guess we'll just have to take that to a jury, take it to somebody -- some find or a fact as to the amount of oil that came out there. But it is a shame that we'll never know. It is a shame that somehow or another the government never insisted that we know.

COOPER: Well, we asked the White House today whether they were going to demand that the flow rate actually be measured. They basically punted to Thad Allen, saying it's up to the Unified Command. Thad Allen says they're kind of still looking into it, but he does -- but seems to be content with this thing being closed off.

CARVILLE: I guess. And you know what? There are going to be a lot of books written about this, and that was one of the things that I can't wait to find out in the book, is how we never found that, why no one just simply said do that. And maybe there's a good answer to it. But I haven't heard it yet.

COOPER: And certainly this is in BP's interest not to know the actual number.

CARVILLE: Well, if you -- if it was $4,300 a barrel, and what most people believe is something between 75,000 to 100,000 barrels a day for, what, 90 days or something like that? Well, of course it's in their interest. And now, they're going to claim, "Well, gee, it could be as low as 30,000."

COOPER: Right.

CARVILLE: You know, 70,000 times 4,300 times 90 is a lot.

COOPER: Do you think it would be worth -- I mean, if they could -- you know, they're going to be putting live cables into this thing, if they could pump the oil for a day, do you think it would be worth taking that risk?

CARVILLE: You know, pumping that oil for the day is, you know what I mean? If you pumped any more oil out in the Gulf, I don't know. Before I did that, I'd want to know a lot more. We've got enough oil in the Gulf.

And I'm not sure about whether BP is going to be able to -- if the government went out to find out all the things, the laws in the state in terms of stuff that's killed in a spill, their liability could be way beyond any measure for them to pay anyway. My guess is before this is over, they're going to have to figure out a way to keep BP vibrant enough to continue to pay this stuff off, because it's going to be an awful lot of money that they're going to owe.

COOPER: And -- and I know you're concerned about people kind of forgetting the story, thinking it's over once this well has been capped. You were saying, though, you think this is going to have an impact for the rest of your life.

CARVILLE: For the rest of my life, yes. Of course, I'm 65 years old. You know, I hope I live another 20 years. It's going to be -- look at what happened at the Exxon Valdez. This is a much worse spill and much more environmentally sensitive area, affecting much more people. They're still not through with this. Look what happened in Ecuador, when it dumped that stuff. It's unbelievable what happened to those poor people there. There's no doubt.

Now let me be clear here. If they can clean some of this stuff up with science, you know, technology, people think of things. And we may be able to do this and do a very good job, but we'll still be living with it. And that doesn't mean that we can't live well with it at some point. But, yes, this is -- this is going to be for the rest of my days and for a long time to come after that.

COOPER: James Carville, thank you.


COOPER: All right. More at the top of the hour about the smearing of Shirley Sherrod. False accusations of racism and the truth ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)