Obama Apologizes To Ousted USDA Official

President Obama talked to Shirley Sherrod, the African-American Department of Agriculture official who was summarily fired after a conservative blogger posted comments of hers that appeared to be racist. But after a complete video of her full speech surfaced on Tuesday revealing her remarks were actually about racial harmony, the administration reversed its decision, begged her forgiveness and offered her another job.

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Also today, President Obama picked up the phone and called Shirley Sherrod. She's the Department of Agriculture official who on Monday, was summarily fired after a conservative blogger posted comments of hers that appeared to be racist. The video of Sherrod's full speech surfaced on Tuesday, confirming her remarks were actually about racial reconciliation. The administration then reversed itself, offering her repeated apologies as well as another job.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has the latest.

MARA LIASSON: The story had all the ingredients for a media spectacle: false charges of racism against an African-American official, a right-wing Internet provocateur, round-the-clock cable news coverage, and an administration admitting it had rushed to judgment and thoroughly blown the case.

Yesterday, Shirley Sherrod said she wanted a conversation, not an apology, from the president. But today, she got both. After several tries by the White House operator to reach Sherrod, who had spent most of yesterday in the CNN studios in Atlanta, the president and Sherrod finally connected at 12:30 today. After the call, Sherrod said the president was very easy to talk to, and that she'd invited him to visit South Georgia.

Ms. SHIRLEY SHERROD (Former Director of Rural Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Georgia): It was great. You know, he's the president of the United States of America, and I respect him as that. I appreciate him as that.

LIASSON: According to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, the conversation lasted seven minutes. The president told her that this apparent misfortune can present an opportunity for her to continue her work on behalf of those in need.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): She's got a remarkable story. He expressed his apologies for the events of the last several days. This is a woman who has a unique set of experiences, both before this incident and now. He thought she was very gracious.

LIASSON: Sherrod has been a farmer and a civil rights activist. She was 17 when her father was shot and killed by a white man. A grand jury later refused to bring murder charges. Before speaking to the president, Sherrod described what she wanted him to know.

Ms. SHERROD: You know, I'd like to talk to him a little bit about the experience of - the experiences of people like me, people at the grassroot level, people who live out there in rural America, people who live in the South. I know he does not have that kind of experience. Let me help him a little bit with how we think, how we live.

LIASSON: Sherrod has now received apologies from the president, the Agriculture secretary and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who said he should have done his homework before airing the clip from her talk. But she has not received an apology from Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who posted the out-of-context video of her speech to a local chapter of the NAACP. That posting, on Breitbart's website on Monday, started the whole flap. And today, Sherrod said he was willing to destroy her in his attempt to attack the NAACP.

Here's Breitbart explaining his own objectives on CNN.

Mr. ANDREW BREITBART (News Publisher, Breitbart.com and Breitbart.tv): This was not about Shirley Sherrod. This was about the NAACP attacking the Tea Party, and this is showing racism at an NAACP event. I did not ask for Shirley Sherrod to be fired. I did not ask for any repercussions for Shirley Sherrod.

LIASSON: Breitbart was angry that the NAACP had condemned elements within the Tea Party that the organization viewed as racist. Breitbart wanted Sherrod's speech to show there was reverse racism inside the NAACP.

The NAACP, like almost everyone else in the story, ended up with egg on its face. Although their Georgia chapter had the full videotape of Sherrod's speech all along, the president of the national organization condemned her remarks before he had listened to the whole tape. And the Obama White House ended up letting a furor over a two-minute clip of video on a conservative website overshadow what they wanted to be the big news stories this week: the signing of the historic financial regulatory bill, and the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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