The Divergent Fates of Sarah Palin and Shirley Sherrod

With the recent retirement of Sarah Palin from her grotesquely lucrative career as a Fox commentator, I immediately thought of another person who was inadvertently catapulted to national prominence: Shirley Sherrod (backstory here). Not to compare the content of their thoughts or ideologies, of course, just the trajectory of their lives. Because Sherrod could have easily parleyed her burst of fame into one of those sumptuous TV commentator/author/lecturer careers, abandoning all her previous work and crisscrossing the country to give milquetoast addresses to executive retreats.

But she did not. Instead, even after both she and a nonprofit she works for got a sizable settlement from the USDA for discrimination in decades past, she didn’t change much. She still does the same thing she’s always done: help poor farmers in rural Georgia, where she grew up. I interviewed her for our latest issue; here’s what she’s done with part of the money:

With that money, and under Sherrod’s leadership, New Communities was able in June 2011 to buy a new piece of property, called Cypress Pond. A 1,638-acre estate, complete with a colossal white-pillared antebellum mansion, it was originally owned by the largest slaveholder and richest man in Georgia. Due to the housing collapse, the price had been marked down from $21 million to $4.5 million. Sherrod plans to establish an agricultural training program there, as well as a program that will bring local blacks and whites together in partnership and promote racial healing. The old mansion is currently being renovated to make room for a conference center and additional meeting space. “White and black together in this area, I think it becomes the perfect place for being helpful in getting folks to get beyond race,” she says. In the meantime, they’re doing some actual farming. Just over the last year, they harvested $50,000 worth of pecans from previously planted trees to help defray maintenance costs.

I’ve always suspected that beneath all that resentment Sarah Palin is desperately insecure and unhappy with a life of wretched excess and consumption. The $75,000 spending binge at Neiman Marcus, the tawdry tabloid family drama, the failed reality TV show; it’s like something out of a warning pamphlet for lottery winners on how money can ruin your life. Sadly ironic perhaps that the better, more fulfilling life path led to the pastoral farmlands of the Republican dreamscape and not to New York glamour and fame.

There’s a lot more to the Sherrod Story—check out the rest here. A very impressive woman.

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.