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Obama apologizes to ousted USDA employee
WASHINGTON -- Flooded with apologies from everywhere, Shirley Sherrod got the biggest "I'm sorry" of all Thursday -- from President Barack Obama, who personally appealed to the ousted worker to come back.
Sherrod, who was forced to resign Monday because of racial comments she made at an NAACP gathering, was asked by Obama to rejoin the federal government and transform "this misfortune" into a chance to use her life experiences to help people, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Obama had stayed out of the public brouhaha that followed Sherrod's ouster from the Agriculture Department after a conservative blog posted a clip of the black woman's comments and portrayed her as racist. Once it became clear that the speech in question was advocating racial reconciliation, not racism, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized to her and offered her a new job Wednesday. Gibbs also apologized publicly "for the entire administration."
Thursday morning, Obama spoke by phone with Sherrod and said he hoped she would accept Agriculture's offer of a new position, Gibbs said. He added that Obama thought Sherrod was "very gracious."
Sherrod said she hadn't decided whether she would accept the invitation to come back, but she did accept the apologies.
As top government officials begged for her forgiveness, Sherrod did not shy away from telling her story on television. She hopped from network to network, even chatting with the ladies of ABC's "The View" and letting CNN film part of her call with Obama as she traveled the streets of New York City in a car.
Even the president of the United States had a hard time getting to Sherrod while she did interviews. Obama had tried to reach her twice Wednesday night but could not, said a White House official. She was on a plane traveling from Atlanta to New York, where she appeared on several morning shows.
The fracas started when Sherrod was forced to resign as Georgia's director of rural development Monday after a conservative blogger posted a video of her telling a crowd at a local NAACP meeting about her initial reluctance 24 years ago to help a poor white farmer seeking government assistance.
Sherrod took to the media Tuesday denying that her comments were racist, and the NAACP -- which had at first condemned her remarks, then later apologized -- posted the full 43-minute video showing the entire speech. The farmer in question also did interviews and said Sherrod had eventually helped him save his farm.
Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart said he had posted a portion of Sherrod's remarks in an effort 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 movement.
"He was willing to destroy me ... in order to try to destroy the NAACP," Sherrod said Thursday. She said she might consider suing Breitbart for defamation.
Breitbart, who has not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press, offered a narrow correction on his website, BigGovernment.com. He acknowledged that Sherrod's remarks about hesitating to help the white farmer referenced something that took place before she worked for the government. The site had previously said her comments were about her work as a USDA employee.
However, the site has not backed off its claim that Sherrod's remarks were racist and still labels the Sherrod posting with the heading, "Video Proof -- The NAACP Rewards Racism."
Sherrod has said she resigned under White House pressure, but Vilsack has said repeatedly the decision was his. In offering his remorse Wednesday, he told reporters: "This is a good woman. She's been through hell. ... I could have done and should have done a better job."
As Obama stayed out of the public fray before the phone call, questions remained about White House involvement in the decision to ask Sherrod to resign. Had there been White House pressure?
"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," he told a news conference.
Gibbs, too, has insisted the decision was made at the Agriculture Department. He told reporters that Obama spoke with Vilsack on Wednesday night, but he wouldn't discuss the substance of the conversation. Gibbs said he doesn't see any reason for Vilsack to resign.
Associated Press Writer Ben Evans contributed to this report.
Full video posted by NAACP: http://tinyurl.com/23jqz95