The Obama administration formally apologized on Wednesday to Shirley Sherrod, the USDA official abruptly fired earlier this week for comments taken out of context by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart.
"On behalf of our administration, I offer an apology," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during Wednesday's daily briefing, acknowledging that the administration had not seen a full tape of Sherrod's comments prior to Tuesday evening. "Look, a disservice was done, an apology is owed. That's what we've done."
Gibbs relayed that Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had been trying to speak to Sherrod on the phone. And later in the day, the Secretary held a press conference of his own during which he relayed that he had, indeed, talked to Sherrod, offered to hire her back, and apologized profusely for the episode.
"I did not think before I acted and for that this poor woman has gone through a very hard time," he said. "There will be changes, one thing there needs to be a more deliberative process, obviously, and I need to do a better job reaching out to get input before a decision of this magnitude is made."
"This is a good woman," he added. "She's been put through hell. She was put through hell and I could have done and should have done a better job."
Vilsack would go on to take complete responsibility for the firing saying that the buck stopped with him and not the president on this decision. But Gibbs cast a wider net, blaming the episode, in part, on the "frenzied culture" that exists in modern politics. "[W]e have a society and culture that's pervasive in this town where everything is viewed through the lens of who wins, who loses, how fast, by what margin," he said.
The Press Secretary also called the episode a "teachable moment," but declined to address who exactly was being taught or who was doing the teaching.
Certainly, the firing has provided a lesson in how quickly racial politics can captivate much of the conversation even during what has been described as a post-racial presidency. Earlier in the day, the president signed into law sweeping financial reform legislation, a major accomplishment that was given only mild attention during the daily briefing.
As the administration waxed apologetically for the firing, so too did Breitbart, who said he felt "bad that they made this about her."
Sherrod, not surprisingly, was not so quick to forget her treatment. She called Fox News' coverage of her out-of-context remarks (in which she appeared to talking about her past hesitancy in dealing with white farmers but was merely explaining how she overcame her race-based dispositions) unprofessional and even racist itself.
"They intended exactly what they did. They were looking for the result they got yesterday," she said, of the cable news station in an interview with Media Matters. "I am just a pawn. I was just here. They are after a bigger thing, they would love to take us back to where we were many years ago. Back to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and not be a whole person."
Sherrod, who was watching the Gibbs briefing on television, did not immediately say whether she would take her job back. Though it's fair to say that the White House would desperately welcome a peaceful ending to the saga. Gibbs stressed repeatedly that the administration had acted in haste. Sherrod said that a USDA official called her three times on Monday night demanding her resignation. Meanwhile, Politico's Ben Smith reported that top-ranking White House aides were initially pleased with how quickly they responded to the apparent crisis -- an account seconded to the Huffington Post by a Democratic source.
Gibbs insisted that the White House was not directly involved in the firing, an assertion that Vilsack confirmed. He vehemently denied that the administration had been too eager to quiet its conservative media critics. Indeed, he declined to criticize Breitbart by name. He did, however, offer subtle lectures to the reporters in attendance for (like the administration itself) not waiting to see the full context of Sherrod's remarks.
"Members of this administration, members of the media, members of different political factions on both sides of this have all made determinations and judgments without a full set of facts," he said. "Without a doubt, Ms. Sherrod is owed an apology."
Political opponents of Breitbart, meanwhile, are using the incident to drive home their argument that his hybrid form of activist-reporting work should no longer be trusted. The progressive watchdog group Media Matters for America released a video on Wednesday titled, "The End of Andrew Breitbart's Credibility."
THIS POST WAS UPDATED FROM ITS ORIGINAL VERSION WITH NEW REPORTING