White House to Shirley Sherrod: Mea Culpa

“Just a few minutes ago I had the opportunity and the privilege to talk to Shirley Sherrod on the phone,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters late this afternoon. “I wanted to offer my personal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that’s been caused to her and her family over the last several days.”

Vilsack said he caught Sherrod in the airport on her way up to New York City from Atlanta and “she was extraordinarily gracious.” He said he told her that he “regretted the circumstances” that led to her resignation and he “took full responsibility for them.”

“I did not think before I acted,” Vilsack said, explaining that he was on the road Monday and had only read a partial transcript of her remarks.

The former governor of Iowa said he asked Sherrod “if she would be interested in figuring out a way forward,” indicating he offered her a job having to do with various legal claims against the Agriculture Department by women and minority farmers who claim that they’ve been discriminated against through the USDA loan program. Noting that Sherrod has been a claimant against the Agriculture Department, Vilsack said she “has a unique set of skills trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter which has been difficult.”

Sherrod told him that she needed to talk it over with her family, Vilsack said.

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that “Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology. I would do so, certainly, on behalf of this administration.”

Gibbs said that “a lot of people involved in this situation, from the government's perspective on through, acted without all the facts.”

President Obama, Gibbs said, had been briefed on the Sherrod matter Tuesday morning and earlier Wednesday. Asked about President Obama’s personal reaction to this story, Gibbs said, “he talked about the fact that a disservice had been done here and that an injustice had happened. And that because the facts had changed, a review of the decision based on those facts should be undertaken.”

Vilsack said the decision was his and his alone to seek her resignation, that there wasn’t any White House pressure regardless of what Sherrod says undersecretary of Agriculture Cheryl Cook told her.

Gibbs said he does not think there’s any truth to the criticism that the administration overreacted because they are afraid of conservative commentators; he pointed a finger at what he called the “frenzied culture” in media where everything happens so quickly, he said.

“When one person has a story, everybody has to story, and responses are given, mistakes, in this case, clearly were made… I think all of that is involved in a larger story that combines rapid advances in technology, a whole host of things that are involved in culture and race and media and politics that have -- that create an environment that we're living in today.”

-Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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