Over the years, reporters learn that there are a relative handful of the public officials with whom we deal who can be counted on to expand our understanding of events. These are the men and women who have probed deeply into the forces shaping the country — or their part of it — and often anticipate the challenges still to come.
During the eight years he was governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack came onto my radar as one of those rare individuals — a man who planted useful thoughts every time I interviewed him. So I was surprised when Vilsack was cast as the fall guy in the ugly incident last month involving the forced resignation of an African-American government employee who was accused by a blogger of reverse discrimination against a white farmer.
As you may remember, Shirley Sherrod, the Agriculture Department official, was shown by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart in a brief excerpt from a speech she had made in which she seemed to suggest she had held back on helping the white farmer. When the full speech was released, it became clear she was telling the story to illustrate how she had overcome any racial feelings she might have harbored. And the farmer praised her for her exceptional help.
Vilsack, who had acted on the basis of partial and misleading information in firing her, called, offered his apologies and another job, which she has not yet accepted.
Talking with friends about him, I realized that they were oblivious to the context of the exceptional public official I had known — a man who was a perfectly plausible presidential aspirant in 2007 until he ran out of money. And I also realized that I had no idea what Vilsack had been up to in the 18 months since President Barack Obama appointed him as secretary of agriculture.
An hour's conversation last week demonstrated that he is as deeply engaged as ever — and working on a variety of fronts. His chief concern, as it was as governor, is the condition of rural America, which is facing challenges not so much because of the Great Recession but as a result of long-term trends. Ninety percent of the persistent poverty counties are found in rural America, Vilsack says.
Those trends — an aging, less-educated and declining population with an average annual income $11,000 below that of their urban neighbors — are not because farmers are hurting. Indeed, farm income is up 9 percent over last year and farm exports are nearly at record levels.
But most of those living in rural America are not farmers. And so the formula for boosting those counties includes an emphasis on exploiting their energy resources, creating local food markets for local products, expanding broadband and promoting outdoor recreation.
One feature Vilsack brought from Iowa is his plan to set aside a small portion of the economic development funds to be channeled into eight or 10 counties that have done their own bottom-up planning and come up with a blueprint embracing all elements of the community. "We did it in Iowa," Vilsack says, "so I know it works."
That is the main game, but there are other projects as well, ranging from the improvement of the nutritional value of school lunches to the assistance he is providing to Afghanistan's ministry of agriculture. Vilsack has 64 of his people working in that ministry, trying to convince Afghan farmers that, rather than growing poppies for the opium trade, there are more profits to be made in pomegranates and grapes.
Ironically, far from being insensitive to racial issues, as Breitbart implied, Vilsack has worked assiduously to clean up the remnants of the historic lawsuits filed against his department by blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, farmers and female employees. If the Senate ever clears the appropriation, that goal too may be part of his worthy legacy.
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group