WASHINGTON — He didn't reach her on the first try, but President Obama phoned former Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod on Thursday to apologize for her abrupt firing based on a 2 1/2 minute video clip that gave a misleading portrait of her views on race.
As with many people trying to reach Sherrod, who has been making the rounds of TV talk shows, the president wasn't immediately successful. White House operators first tried Wednesday night but couldn't reach her and were unable to leave a message because her voice mailbox was full.
Obama and Sherrod spoke for about seven minutes, in which he mentioned his own exploration of race in his first book, "Dreams From My Father," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Obama also urged her to continue speaking up for poor people. At no point did he explicitly ask her to return to the Agriculture Department, Gibbs said.
Obama had been briefed on Sherrod's firing Tuesday morning and initially supported the decision by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, according to the White House. He reversed course after the release of the full, 45 minute videotape of Sherrod's appearance before a local NAACP group in Georgia four months ago.
In the morning, the Agriculture Department e-mailed a formal job offer to Sherrod. The position involves civil rights, though Sherrod is also welcome to return to her old job if she wants it, according to an Obama administration official.
Chastened Agriculture Department officials have given her the choice to work in Washington or remain in Georgia, where she lives now.
In describing the new job offer, Vilsack said Wednesday that Sherrod would be involved in the department's effort "to turn the page on our civil rights chapter, which has been difficult."
In a TV interview Thursday morning, Sherrod said she wasn't necessarily eager to take a job with her old employer. Her family, too, said they were wary of seeing her go back to work for the woman, department undersecretary Cheryl Cook, who carried out the firing.
Cook had phoned Sherrod on Monday and asked her to submit her resignation, warning that her story would be shown on the talk show hosted by Fox's Glenn Beck. Throughout the conversation, Sherrod said she was not given a chance to present her side of the story.
Sherrod's son, Kenyatta Sherrod, said "I have a lot of reservations about her working for her. She (Cook) should have to do some sensitivity training."