We are apparently nearing the all's-well-that-ends-well part of the Shirley Sherrod saga.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that he apologized personally to Sherrod, the former USDA official who he forced out Monday because of a misunderstanding of racial comments she made in a speech in March.
A clearly chastened Vilsack said he talked with Sherrod by phone and offered an apology which she accepted.
He added that he also asked Sherrod to consider taking a new post at the USDA that would make use of her unique set of experiences, including her being one of hundreds of black farmers who received a settlement from the agency because of past racial discrimination.
Just a few minutes ago, I had the opportunity and the privilege to speak with Shirley Sherrod over the phone. She was onher way to New York City, and I caught her in the airport.
In the conversation, I started off by extending to her mypersonal and profound apologies for the pain and discomfort that hasbeen caused to her and to her family over the course of the lastseveral days.
I wanted to give her the opportunity to express what I'm sure has been an extraordinary range of emotions that she must have had and still probably does have.
But she was extraordinarily gracious. I wanted to make sure that she understood that I regretted the circumstances and that I accepted full responsibility for them.
We talked briefly about the process. And then I asked if she would be interested in figuring out a way forward that would take advantage of the extraordinary life experiences that she's had.
She has been a claimant in a case against the United States Department of Agriculture and has experienced some of the prejudice and bias that we still today are dealing with, in terms of claims against the department.
She's had a broad range of experiences at USDA and understands many of the programs in USDA. She has an extraordinary history of helping individuals in trouble.
And of course, she has gone through a very difficult period in the last couple of days. As a result of that experience, she has a unique set of skills, which I think would lend themselves to assisting and helping USDA as we deal with trying to turn the page on our civil rights chapter, which has been difficult.
For the last 18 months, we've spent a good deal of time and effort in an effort to try to resolve thousands of claims that have been filed against the USDA.
We're continuing that work. And we had an opportunity to discuss a unique opportunity here at USDA that might be of interest to her.
She asked for the opportunity to think about it, which we — I certainly respected. I again expressed my deep regret and apology to her and to her family, and advised her that I would be meeting with the press to publicly apologize to her and to express publicly my regret.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, added some new details. For instance, he said he hadn't talked with President Barack Obama about the Sherrod situation before he decided to pursue her resignation or after.
The decision to ask for her resignation was entirely his own, he said. There was no pressure from the White House.
Asked why Cheryl Cook, the Agriculture Department official who repeatedly called Sherrod on Monday on Vilsack's behalf, told Sherrod that the White House wanted her gone, Vilsack said there may have been a misunderstanding.
Perhaps Sherrod, who had been the USDA's Georgia rural development director, was told that the Ag Department had contacted a White House liaison, Vilsack said. But he insisted there was no pressure from the White House whatsoever.
Indeed, he said "the buck stops with me, as it should" which should come as a surprise to President Obama since ever since President Harry Truman presidents have thought the buck stopped in the Oval Office.
Vilsack indicated that he and the department have been hypersensitive to civil rights discrimination issues because of tens of thousands of claims from minority farmers the USDA has been dealing with.
That sensitivity, he said, no doubt played a role in how quickly he responded when the Sherrod speech came to light.
You ask why. For the last 18 months, we have really focused on trying to address the long-standing history of civil-rights claims against the department.
There are outstanding claims brought by black farmers, Hispanic farmers, women farmers, Native American farmers. And these are not just a few incidences or a few isolated claims. These are tens of thousands of claims that have been brought againstthe department.
I made it as a goal, when I took this office, that we would try to reverse that history, we would try to close that chapter; that we would be a department that would not tolerate in any way, shape or form discrimination. I still hold that belief very firmly, and I know Shirley does as well.
I've learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days. And one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn't take the time. I should have. And as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period. And I'll have to live with that for a long, long time.