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Vilsack apologizes to Sherrod, offers to rehire her at USDA

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; 5:33 PM

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday he had offered to rehire fired department official Shirley Sherrod, and the White House extended a full-throated apology to her, calling her ouster as the result of an out-of-context video an "injustice."

"It was a decision I regret having made in haste," Vilsack said at a news conference late Wednesday. He said he had offered her a "unique" position.Sherrod told the Associated Press that she's considering the offer.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs conceded Wednesday afternoon that the government had acted rashly and without all the facts when it sought Sherrod's resignation for racially themed comments she made during a recent speech to the NAACP.

Gibbs said he had talked about the situation Wednesday with President Obama, and said the president believes that "an injustice" had been done. Gibbs described the administration's apology as a direct reflection of the president's feelings on the issue. But he declined to say whether Obama views the incident as fueled by a broader debate over racial issues.

"Race has been a topic of discussion for a long, long time in this country," Gibbs said. "A war was fought about it, a movement to gain equal and civil rights was had. . . . It continues to be something that we will discuss for quite some time."

The apology was a remarkable admission for the White House, which had Tuesday stood by the ouster even following the release of the complete video of Sherrod's speech, which showed her comments in a new light.

There was little of the normal West Wing defensiveness in Gibbs's appearance before reporters Wednesday, replaced instead by repeated, simple apologies and an acknowledgement that officials at the Agriculture Department had acted without complete information.

Gibbs also blamed the media and those who practice politics in Washington, who he said all acted rashly in their fast-paced discussion of Sherrod's speech. He said mistakes were made because of a "frenzied culture where everything happens so quickly."

"I think everybody has to go back . . . and ask themselves how did we get into this?" Gibbs said. "How did we not ask the right questions? How did you all not ask the right questions?"

Gibbs did not, however, acknowledge any initial responsibility on behalf of White House aides, saying that Sherrod's forced resignation had occurred at the behest of Vilsack and others at the department, not at the urging of the White House. Still, Gibbs said Vilsack's job is secure, saying he is doing a good job at the sprawling department.

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