Majority Leader Reid apologizes to Obama for 2008 remarks

Sen. Harry Reid: "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words."
Sen. Harry Reid: "I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words." (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) apologized Saturday for referring to President Obama in private conversations during the 2008 presidential campaign as "light-skinned" and as having "no Negro dialect."

"I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words," Reid said in a statement. "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African Americans, for my improper comments."

Obama said in a statement that Reid called him about the matter on Saturday afternoon. "I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years, I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice and I know what's in his heart," Obama said. "As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."

Reid's remarks about Obama were revealed in "Game Change," a book detailing the 2008 race by Time's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann.

The authors describe Reid assessing Obama's strengths as a candidate. Reid, they write, "believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee jumped on Reid's comments. "For those who hope to one day live in a color-blind nation, it appears Harry Reid is more than a few steps behind them," communications director Brian Walsh said.

Reid also called civil rights leaders and African American congressmen to apologize.

Reid's apologies came on the same day that a poll conducted by the Las Vegas Review Journal showed him facing an uphill fight for reelection in November. Reid trailed former state Republican party chairwoman Sue Lowden 50 percent to 40 percent, and he was lagging businessman Danny Tarkanian (R) 49 percent to 41 percent. One in three voters viewed Reid favorably and 52 percent saw him in an unfavorable light in the poll.

Despite Reid's dismal poll numbers, he told the Review-Journal that he had no plans to follow fellow Democratic Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) into retirement. "I am absolutely running for reelection," Reid told the paper.

Reid was officially neutral in the primary contest between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), but he has since written that in 2007 he privately encouraged Obama to run.

The swiftness of Reid's apologies underscored the sensitivity surrounding remarks involving the subject of race. In 2002, then-Majority Leader Trent Lott said at a 100th birthday party for then-Sen. Strom Thurmond that the nation would not have had "all the problems" it had if Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on a pro-segregation campaign, had been successful.

The Bush White House did not come to Lott's defense, and the Mississippi Republican was forced from his post.

In 2007, while a presidential candidate and senator from Delaware, the current vice president drew criticism for a similar remark about Obama.

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Joe Biden said.

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