Leave it to Frank Rich, columnist and former drama critic for the Times, to provide unhinged overkill on the Shirley Sherrod tape fiasco. First he called conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart a "racial provocateur."
And then Rich really got offensive, in Sunday's "There's a Battle Outside and It Is Still Ragin' ."
This country was rightly elated when it elected its first African-American president more than 20 months ago. That high was destined to abate, but we reached a new low last week. What does it say about America now, and where it is heading, that a racial provocateur, wielding a deceptively edited video, could not only smear an innocent woman but make every national institution that touched the story look bad? The White House, the N.A.A.C.P. and the news media were all soiled by this episode. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, who believe in fundamental fairness for all, grapple with the poisonous residue left behind by the many powerful people of all stripes who served as accessories to a high-tech lynching.
Rich, always at hand with a hysteric metaphor, compared John Lewis's beating at the hand of racist state troopers during the Civil Rights era was somehow comparable to unsupported allegations of racial epithets shouted at him, as a congressman, on the frenzied final day of the health care debate on Capital Hill.
Rich, like the rest of the media, assumed as gospel truth the racial slurs alleged by Lewis's colleagues, though there has never been any documentation. In his column, Rich even made up "hundreds of eyewitnesses" to the epithets - though again, none have surfaced to claim to have heard racial slurs at the rally and none revealed on video or audiotape, despite the air being thick with recording equipment.
Even the civil rights hero John Lewis has been slimed by these vigilantes. Lewis was nearly beaten to death by state troopers bearing nightsticks and whips in Selma, Ala., just three weeks before Sherrod's father was murdered 200 miles away in 1965. This year, as a member of Congress, he was pelted with racial epithets while walking past protesters on the Capitol grounds during the final weekend of the health care debate. Breitbart charged Lewis with lying - never mind that the melee had hundreds of eyewitnesses - and tried to prove it with a video so manifestly bogus that even Fox didn't push it. But he wasn't deterred then, and he and others like him won't be deterred by the Sherrod saga's "happy ending" as long as the McConnells of the conservative establishment look the other way and Fox pumps racial rage into the media bloodstream 24/7.
"You think we have come a long way in terms of race relations in this country, but we keep going backwards," Sherrod told Joe Strupp of Media Matters last week. She speaks with hard-won authority. While America's progress on race has been epic since the days when Sherrod's father could be murdered with impunity, we have been going backward since Election Day 2008.
Rich anticipated racial battles on the horizon:
We don't know what history will bring next. But we might at least address the chilling question prompted in "Mad Men" by the horrific events of 46 summers ago - "Is that what it takes to change things?" - before our own summer comes to a boil again.