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White House apologizes to fired USDA worker

Woman offered ‘unique’ new post

By Mary Clare Jalonick and Ben Evans
Associated Press / July 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The White House did a sudden about-face yesterday and asked for forgiveness from the African-American whose ouster from the Agriculture Department ignited an embarrassing political firestorm over race. She was offered a “unique’’ new position and said she was thinking it over.

The controversy rapidly spread from Monday’s forced resignation of a low-level official in Georgia to Tuesday’s urgent discussions at the White House amid a rising public outcry, to yesterday’s repeated apologies and pleas for Shirley Sherrod to come back.

Sherrod said she resigned under White House pressure after the showing of a video of racial remarks she made at an NAACP gathering. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said repeatedly yesterday that the decision had been his alone.

“I asked for Shirley’s forgiveness, and she was gracious enough to extend it to me,’’ he said after reaching her by phone.

Sherrod, in a phone interview with the Associated Press, said, “They did make an offer. I just told him I need to think about it.’’

The controversy threatened to grow into more than a three-day distraction for Obama’s administration, with important midterm congressional elections nearing and partisan feelings running high. President Obama said nothing publicly about the developments while administration officials tried to simultaneously show his concern and to distance him from the original ousting.

It began with the viewing of a video on a conservative website of Sherrod’s remarks about not doing all she could to help a white farmer two decades ago. After she was told to resign — with the NAACP declaring its approval — the situation became complicated when the rest of the edited video was released by the NAACP and Sherrod insisted her remarks were about reconciliation, not the stoking of racism.

By yesterday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was apologizing to Sherrod “for the entire administration’’ and saying that officials did not know all the facts when she was fired. He said he didn’t know if the president would talk to Sherrod himself.

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.’’

Said Vilsack, who met with the Congressional Black Caucus after his news conference, “This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell. . . . I could have done and should have done a better job.’’

“I accept the apology,’’ Sherrod said on CNN after watching Gibbs talk to reporters. But she said the apology took too long.

Sherrod was asked to resign after conservative bloggers posted a video of her saying she didn’t initially give a white farmer as much help as she could have 24 years ago, when she was working for a farmers’ aid group. Sherrod said she used the story in her speech to the NAACP to promote racial reconciliation and that the edited video distorted her remarks.

Like the administration, the NAACP reversed its stance on Sherrod and called for her to be rehired.

The incident was the latest in a series of race-related brouhahas to garner national attention since Obama became the nation’s first black chief executive.

A year ago, Obama convened a “beer summit’’ at the White House between black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and James Crowley, a white police sergeant who arrested him after a confrontation at Gates’s home in Cambridge.