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Obama apologizes to ousted Agriculture official

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

WASHINGTON, Ga. -- President Obama apologized Thursday to former federal official Shirley Sherrod over her ouster in the midst of a racially tinged firestorm that enveloped the White House.

Obama expressed his regret in a phone call, telling Sherrod he hopes she will accept the Agriculture Department's offer of a new position and saying she could parlay "this misfortune" into an opportunity to use her life experiences to help people, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. The president thought Sherrod was "very gracious," Gibbs told reporters.

Sherrod was forced to resign as a USDA official in Georgia earlier this week after a conservative blogger posted an edited video of her recalling at an NAACP meeting her reluctance 24 years ago to help a poor white farmer seeking government assistance. She later said that the video posting took out of context what had been a talk advocating racial reconciliation.

Obama spoke to Sherrod after a slew of nationally broadcast interviews. From network to network, she said she wanted to talk to Obama about her wretched week but that she felt there was no need for him to apologize, as Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had earlier.

Sherrod, in an interview with CNN, called her talk with Obama "a very good conversation."

"I've been dealing with some of the same issues he's been dealing with, especially for the last five years," she said.

Earlier, Sherrod said in a television interview that she viewed the president as "not someone who has experienced some of the things I've experienced in life."

Sherrod said she is uncertain whether she will accept Vilsack's invitation to come back to his department, saying she wants to think it over.

The White House said in a statement that Obama expressed his regret about the episode and emphasized that Vilsack was sincere in his apology. The president had tried to reach Sherrod twice on Wednesday night, said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes details.

Gibbs told reporters that Obama spoke with Vilsack on Wednesday night, but the White House spokesman wouldn't discuss the substance of the conversation. Gibbs said he doesn't see any reason for Vilsack to resign.

Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart has said he posted the edited video of Sherrod's remarks 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 of Breitbart, who she said had not apologized to her.

Breitbart has not responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Breitbart offered a narrow correction on his website, BigGovernment.com, acknowledging that Sherrod's remarks about hesitating to help a white farmer referenced something that took place before she worked for the government. The site had previously said Sherrod's comments were about her work as a USDA employee.

However, the site has not backed off its claim that Sherrod's remarks are racist and still labels the Sherrod posting with the heading, "Video Proof -- The NAACP Rewards Racism."

Sherrod has said Breitbart appears to have intentionally misconstrued her speech and that she might consider suing him for defamation.

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 has accepted Vilsack's apology.

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," he told a news conference.

Gibbs has also insisted the decision was one made at the Agriculture Department and denied White House pressure for Sherrod's immediate resignation.

Sherrod appeared Thursday morning on CNN, MSNBC, ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "The Early Show" and NBC's "Today."