Fired fed gets apology from White House

Woman in ‘racist’ row offered new job

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White Houses rarely apologize, but for the second time the Obama administration was forced to issue a mea culpa for its hasty handling of a racially charged incident, this time involving an Agriculture Department employee.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs apologized Wednesday to Shirley Sherrod after President Obama’s agriculture secretary forced her to resign “without all the facts.” However, Mr. Gibbs blamed the rush to judgment on the media as well as the administration.

And now there’s a job waiting for Mrs. Sherrod at the Agriculture Department, if she wants it.

“Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Asked whether the administration rushed to judgment out of fear of conservative commentators who had been running with the story Monday and early Tuesday, Mr. Gibbs replied flatly: “No.”

Mrs. Sherrod, who is black, was asked to resign her post as director of rural development in Georgia this week after a two-minute video clip of her speaking at an NAACP event in Georgia went viral on the Internet. Taken out of context, the clip appeared to show her admitting that she did not want to help white farmers; the full video revealed that she was telling a story about how she overcame her own personal prejudices.

The Sherrod affair marks another unwanted furor for the White House involving a premature response to a race-related incident. Last summer, Mr. Obama opined at a press conference on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a white policeman that the noted black scholar blamed on racism. Mr. Obama said the Cambridge, Mass., police “acted stupidly” and referred to racial profiling, even while conceding that he didn’t have “all the facts.”

What had been a relatively minor story outside Boston quickly made front-page headlines across the nation and prompted pushback from the police. Within days, Mr. Obama had made a surprise appearance at a White House press briefing and said that he “obviously helped to contribute to ratcheting” up the dispute and “could have calibrated those words differently.” The White House “beer summit” later followed.

In the current kerfuffle, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized by telephone to Mrs. Sherrod and offered her a job within the department on Wednesday, a day after she was pressured to resign.

“I started off by extending to her my personal and profound apology for the pain and discomfort that has been caused to her and her family over the course of the last several days,” said Mr. Vilsack at Wednesday afternoon’s hastily called press conference as he described his conversation with Mrs. Sherrod.

He asked her to consider a “unique opportunity” that would take advantage of her years of experience within the department and with rural communities.

Mrs. Sherrod said on CNN after watching the Gibbs press conference that “I accept the apology,” though she said it took too long.

Mr. Vilsack said that Mrs. Sherrod told him she would need a few days to think about whether she wanted to accept the offer. Mrs. Sherrod had been saying since her firing that she was not certain she would accept a job if offered.

“She has an extraordinary history of helping individuals in trouble, and of course she has gone through a very difficult period in the last couple of days,” said Mr. Vilsack.

He insisted that the decision to ask for her resignation was his alone and that “there was no pressure from the White House,” contrary to what Mrs. Sherrod had said was related to her Tuesday.

“A disservice was done, for which we apologize,” Mr. Gibbs told reporters at Wednesday’s press briefing, which was dominated by questions on the matter. “I think everybody has to go back and look at what has happened over the past 24 to 36 hours, and ask ourselves how we got into this. How did we not ask the right questions? How did you all not ask the right questions?”

Mr. Obama has been briefed on the situation, said Mr. Gibbs, who wouldn’t elaborate on his reaction other than to say that an injustice had been done.

Mrs. Sherrod was forced out after Andrew Breitbart posted Monday at his Big Government website a videotape of her telling an NAACP chapter in March that she once held back on offering aid to a white farmer because of his race. The tape shows audience members laughing as Mrs. Sherrod recounts her actions.

It turns out the incident occurred 24 years ago, and that at the end of the tape, she tells the crowd that she was wrong to have done so, because it’s not about “white and black,” but “it’s about poor versus those who have.”

Mrs. Sherrod did ultimately assist the family. Both Roger Spooner and wife Eloise praised Mrs. Sherrod on Tuesday for helping save the farm. Mrs. Spooner said of firing Mrs. Sherrod: “They have not treated her right.”

The episode came as the latest salvo in a scuffle over race that began last week when the NAACP condemned the “tea party” movement for what it called the movement’s “racist elements and activities.” Tea party officials have denied that they tolerate racism.

The White House isn’t the only group acknowledging having acted prematurely. The NAACP, which initially had branded Ms. Sherrod’s remarks as racist and said “the reaction from many in the audience is disturbing,” now says it was “snookered” by Mr. Breitbart and Fox News.

On Wednesday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the firing “should never have happened.”

“No one should be so unfairly accused. And no one should lose their job without a fair chance to respond to the allegations against them. Of course, Shirley Sherrod should be reinstated to an appropriate position.”

The NAACP also posted the full video on its website. Mrs. Sherrod’s speech came at a banquet given by the NAACP’s Georgia branch.

Mr. Breitbart denied Wednesday snookering anybody, saying that he only was given the tape segment he posted, while the NAACP always had access to the entire video.

Shirley Sherrod’s story doesn’t change the fact [NAACP President] Ben Jealous had access to the entire video and blasted Sherrod without watching it. That is not the fault of Andrew Breitbart, nor is it the fault of Fox News. It is the fault of only one person, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP,” wrote Jeff Dunetz at Mr. Breitbart’s Big Government site.

On Wednesday’s show, Fox News host Glenn Beck denounced Mr. Gibbs‘ words, telling him: “Don’t try to spread the blame. I didn’t fire her. You did. Nobody here at Fox News fired her. You did. Yeah. Without the facts.”

On Tuesday, Mrs. Sherrod had blamed the NAACP in part for her firing and accused the group of a rush to judgment.

“The NAACP has not tried to contact me one time, and they are the reason why this happened. They got into a fight with the tea party and all of this came out as a result of that,” she told CNN on Tuesday. “I would have appreciated having the NAACP at least contact me … to try to get the truth.”

Mrs. Sherrod said Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook phoned her repeatedly as she was driving to her office, insisting that the White House wanted her resignation. “I had at least three calls telling me the White House wanted me to resign.”

She said Ms. Cook told her, “Well, Shirley, they want you to pull over to the side of the road and do it because you’re going to be on ‘Glenn Beck’ tonight.”

Mr. Beck’s Tuesday show on Fox News did indeed feature the Sherrod story, only Mr. Beck, instead of calling for her to step down, called on the Obama administration to “give her back her job.”

In remarks that seem prophetic in light of Wednesday’s walkback by the administration, Mr. Beck said, “Something is definitely wrong here. Yes, the Obama administration has a history of acting without all the facts.”

c Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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