WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Thursday conveyed his regrets to Shirley Sherrod over her ouster in the midst of a racially-tinged firestorm that ensnared the White House, Agriculture Department, NAACP and an Internet blogger.
“The president told Ms. Sherrod that this misfortune can present an opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of those in need,” the White House said in a statement about a phone call that Obama had with her at midday. “He hopes that she will do so.”
Sherrod was forced to resign earlier this week after a conservative blogger posted an edited video of her recalling her reluctance 24 years ago to help a poor white farmer seeking government assistance. She said the posting took out of context a talk she gave urging racial reconciliation.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs’ office released a statement describing Obama’s call at midday Thursday following her appearance on a host of nationally broadcast interviews. From network to network, she said she wanted to talk to Obama about her wretched week. But also said she felt there was no need for him to apologize to her, as Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had done earlier.
“I don’t think the president is behind me,” she said in one interview, describing Obama as “not someone who has experienced some of the things I’ve experienced in life.”
Sherrod said she still wasn’t uncertain whether she would accept Vilsack’s invitation to come back to his department, saying she wanted to think it over.
The White House said: “The president expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about events of the last several days. He emphasized that Secretary Vilsack was sincere in his apology yesterday, and in his work to rid USDA of discrimination.”
A White House official said that Sherrod did not indicate to the president whether she would accept the job she has been offered at the Agriculture Department. The president tried to reach her twice on Wednesday night but was unable to leave a message, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes details.
White House staff were trying to reach Sherrod this morning, and when she called back to the White House, the president spoke with her from his private office.
The furor centered on a videotape on the Internet of Sherrod’s remarks, recalling her reluctance 24 years ago to help a white farmer seeking government assistance. Blogger Andrew Breitbart said he posted it to illustrate that racism exists in the NAACP, an argument he was using to counter allegations by the civil rights organization of racism in the tea party.
“He was willing to destroy me ... in order to try to destroy the NAACP,” Sherrod said Thursday of Breitbart, saying she still hasn’t heard an apology from him. She had argued from the start that her talk was about racial moderation and reconciliation, and that the Internet posting took her speech out of context.
Sherrod also reiterated she isn’t certain she’ll return to government, even though the administration acknowledged she was done a disservice by being forced out, invited out, and then rendered cross-government apologies.
Obama has said nothing publicly about the controversy.
Sherrod said of Obama: “I’d like to help him see some of the things that he could do in the future.”
“I really regret what they did. But as I said before, he’s my president,” Sherrod said. “When you get it down to where the rubber meets the road, I think you need to understand a little more what life is like. I’d love to talk to him, though, or people in his administration ... to help them understand.”
In offering a public apology Wednesday, Vilsack told reporters: “This is a good woman. She’s been through hell. ... I could have done and should have done a better job.” He addressed the media after speaking to her by phone.
Sherrod accepted Vilsack’s apology.
And a new job offer was put on the table as the administration sought to keep the embarrassing events of this week from being more than a three-day distraction.
But will Sherrod want to return to the Agriculture Department?
“They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it,” said Sherrod in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
How much involvement was there from the White House? Was there White House pressure last Monday to push Sherrod out, when the snippet of remarks incorrectly suggested a racist bias?
“No,” insisted Vilsack. He said he made the decision without knowing all the facts and regretted it. “I am accepting the responsibility with deep regret,” Vilsack told a news conference.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs also insisted the decision was one made at the Agriculture Department and he denied White House pressure for Sherrod’s immediate resignation. He apologized to Sherrod “for the entire administration.”
The president had been briefed, Gibbs said, and “he talked about the fact that a disservice had been done, an injustice had happened and, because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be taken.”