Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was this week's winner of the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza's "Worst Week in Washington" award. On the one hand, it is richly deserved; on the other, before Monday, when he fired USDA bureaucrat Shirley Sherrod and then had to beg her to return -- to a loftier title and higher salary -- not many people had ever heard of Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa.
Still for Vilsack, better obscurity than what he faces now -- ridicule. The Chicago Tribune's John Kass headlined him as "Obama's fall guy" and "Vilsack the Pooh." Kass's column is illustrated with a photo of Vilsack wearing a Winnie the Pooh bear on his head. (That he wore it at an event to promote literacy seems almost besides the point.)
On ABC's Good Morning America President Obama said that Vilsack "jumped the gun" when he ordered Sherrod fired on the basis of a cut and edited piece of video of a speech that Sherrod delivered to the NAACP last March. The video appeared to show Sherrod boasting about discriminating against a white farmer -- when viewed in context and its entirety it showed exactly the opposite.
In late January, 2007, I interviewed Vilsack, then running for the Democratic nomination for President. Vilsack was on my mind because some months earlier, in late May 2006, Vilsack's name came up during an interview with Louis Susman, John Kerry's 2004 national finance chairman and then a top executive at Citigroup's Chicago office. I sought out Susman because I was interested in which Democrat he'd throw his prodigious fundraising skills behind. (Not for nothing is Susman, now Obama's ambassador to England, nicknamed "the vacumn cleaner.")
Obama's name did not come up during our conversation -- it would be several months before Susman selected the Senator from Illinois. While we talked, Susman received a call from Vilsack. Susman left his office so I couldn't hear their conversation, but it was clear that Vilsack had money on his mind and that Susman was not ready to commit.
When I interviewed Vilsack I sensed that he knew he couldn't win -- he dropped out less than a month later, bowing to the reality that he could not raise the money required for a national campaign.
I was not surprised when Vilsack backed Hillary for the nomination. During my conversation with him, he spoke effusively of the Clintons -- it was clear he felt he owed them. The weekend before the November 1998 Iowa gubernatorial election, six weeks before Bill Clinton faced an impeachment hearing, Hillary traveled to Des Moines for a get-out-the-vote rally for Vilsack, who came from behind to win.
Soon after taking office, in February 1999, shortly after Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate, Hillary -- I suspect with her eye on Iowa in 2004 or 2008 -- invited Tom and his wife Christie to a White House Lincoln Bedroom sleepover. "We were actually the guests of Sen. Clinton," Vilsack recalled, "but she was very tired that night, and actually forgot that we were going to stop by." Bill was happy for the company, and Vilsack told me that the President gave them a "personal" tour of the second floor of the White House that extended until midnight, well past their bedtime.
Hillary's ties to Christie Vilsack, a player in Iowa politics, and her family went way back. Hillary was an old friend of Christie's brother, Tom Bell -- they shared office space as young lawyers during the Nixon impeachment. Her influence couldn't win John Kerry the White House in 2004, but it definitely helped him win the nomination. He came from behind to win the Iowa caucus. (Tom Vilsack turned up on Kerry's short list of vice presidential picks; losing to John Edwards.)
Vilsack served two terms as Governor and chose not to run for a third. After the 2006 elections, before he announced his candidacy, he called Bill and Hillary to tell them he was running. He recalls them as "extraordinarily gracious." "I love you guys," Bill told him, "It's a great experience....If you win, I'll support you a thousand percent."
Out of the race, Vilsack threw his support to Hillary. This time the Vilsacks failed to play kingmaker in the Iowa caucuses. Hillary came in third behind Obama and Edwards. (Had she won in Iowa, chances are she'd be president today.)
Vilsack, now 59, supported Obama during the general election, and Obama gave him the agriculture cabinet job. Another run for the White House is probably not in Vilsack's future -- that future seems clouded at the moment, but if Hillary returns to the White House and the Vilsacks help her get there, who knows.
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