The White House Apologizes to Shirley Sherrod

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In a grueling briefing marked by testy exchanges and nervous laughter, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs apologized to Shirley Sherrod on behalf of the Obama Administration. “A disservice was done, for which we apologize,” Gibbs said. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was attempting to reach Sherrod, Gibbs said, to offer an apology and discuss “next steps.” But Gibbs declined to specify what those might be, or whether President Obama would intervene directly to ensure she is able to reclaim her job should she choose.

Gibbs was contrite throughout the briefing. “I’m not up here to make excuses,” he said. “I think many involved, at all levels, believe rightly that not all the information was gotten. Rectifying that is tremendously important for everyone.” Pressed to apportion blame for Sherrod’s firing, he cited several parties–including the USDA, the White House and the media–who made decisions based on an incomplete set of facts. While he made clear that the demands of a perpetual news cycle had forced the Administration’s hand, he did not mention Andrew Breitbart, who sparked the imbroglio by posting to his website a short snippet of a speech Sherrod gave in March at an NAACP event. The truncated video depicted Sherrod recounting her reticence to assist a white farmer. When the full speech emerged, it turned out to be an elegant parable about transcending prejudice—which stems, she told the crowd, not from race but from class division and status anxiety. Breitbart told MSNBC his intention was not to target Sherrod, but rather to expose the NAACP’s “double standard.” Last week, the group passed a resolution condemning the “racist elements” in the Tea Party movement.

Gibbs provided a general timetable of the White House’s involvement in the issue. He said the president was likely briefed for the first time “late yesterday morning,” and again later in the day. At first, “based on incomplete information,” the White House was supportive of Vilsack’s decision, Gibbs said. A White House official — Gibbs declined to specify who — contacted the USDA last night to ask it to undertake a review, based on the facts that emerged during the day. Asked whether Vilsack’s job was safe, Gibbs said the Secretary, “who acknowledged the mistakes he had made” based on the information he had at the time, has been doing “terrific” work.

Pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have suggested the episode underscores the reticence of the nation’s first African-American president to wade into racial issues. Gibbs said he didn’t agree that the Administration was “hypersensitive” to such topics. He parried a series of follow-up questions, including one that quoted Obama’s past exhortation to confront racial issues. “Race has been a topic of discussion for a long, long time,” Gibbs said. “A war was fought about it. A movement to gain equal and civil rights was had, to rectify injustice…this just continues many of those discussions.”

We’ll have more on this, and update this post as necessary when we have a formal transcript.

*Update: According to CNN, Vilsack apologized directly to Sherrod, and and offered her “a job” within the Department. Unclear whether this meant her old position or a different one. CNN says Sherrod asked for time to think about it.