WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued an extraordinary public apology Wednesday and offered to reinstate a federal official who was fired after she appeared to make racial comments on a misleading snippet of video.
When it became clear that her comments had been taken out of context, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to Shirley Sherrod by phone to apologize and to ask if she would return to the department.
The events came as an embarrassment to Obama administration officials, who have sought to depict themselves as immune to the blogosphere and demands of the news cycle.
In this case, though, the administration fired the woman based on Vilsack’s reading of a transcript of a video on a conservative website that left the inaccurate impression that Sherrod, a black Department of Agriculture official, had deliberately not helped a white man save his family farm in 1986 when she worked for a Georgia nonprofit.
As the video went viral, putting pressure on the White House to respond, Vilsack made the quick decision Monday to dismiss Sherrod.
“This is a good woman. She’s been put through hell,” Vilsack said Wednesday. “I could have done and should have done a better job.” Vilsack said the decision to fire Sherrod had been his and his alone.
He did not describe the new position, but hinted that it might involve a promotion to a position dealing with civil rights claims. Sherrod said she would consider it, a contrite Vilsack said.
The White House role in the firing remains unclear. Vilsack denied he had received any “pressure” but said he discussed his actions with a White House liaison.
Sherrod has said that a department undersecretary, Cheryl Cook, phoned her Monday and told her the White House wanted her to quit. Sherrod said that Cook also told her the story would be mentioned on the cable show hosted by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, a harsh White House critic.
The White House denied that it sought Sherrod’s resignation.
Vilsack’s news conference followed a briefing by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who apologized on behalf of the administration. Underscoring the influence of instantaneous media, Sherrod was shown in a CNN studio viewing Gibbs’ briefing, and smiled as the apology was being expressed in real time.
“I think without a doubt Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology,” Gibbs said. “I would do so certainly on behalf of this administration.” He added that “everybody involved made determinations without knowing all the facts and all the events.”
The story began Monday when Andrew Breitbart, a conservative media entrepreneur, posted a 2 1/2-minute video of Sherrod addressing an NAACP meeting this year in which she discusses her dealings with a white farmer. She said the farmer came in acting “superior” to her. “I was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland and here I was faced with helping a white person save their land,” Sherrod said. In those moments, Sherrod says she was reluctant to give him the “full force of what I could do.”
That touched off a fury in conservative media outlets, which have forced White House retreats in the past. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly said, “Ms. Sherrod must resign immediately.”
The NAACP weighed in too, calling Sherrod’s statements “shameful.”
A fuller picture emerged Tuesday when the NAACP released the complete 45-minute video of Sherrod’s appearance. Far from embracing reverse racism, Sherrod said the encounter with the white farmer taught her that poor people of all races needed help, which she resolved to give. She described helping the man save his farm.
“They could be black, white and Hispanic,” she said, adding that “it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people.”
The full video caused the White House to reconsider.