VIA: New York Times
WASHINGTON — Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, apologized on Saturday for once predicting that Barack Obama could become the country’s first black president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Mr. Reid telephoned the president to convey his regret personally, aides to both men said, for a comment from a new published account of the 2008 presidential race. The book reported that Mr. Reid privately urged Mr. Obama, then a freshman senator, to seek the presidency in the fall of 2006 despite his limited experience and the historical obstacles to making such a run.
“I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words,” Mr. Reid said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans, for my improper comments.”
President Obama quickly expressed support for Mr. Reid.
“I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years. I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice, and I know what’s in his heart,” Mr. Obama said in a statement, adding that the remark was “unfortunate.” “As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”
Mr. Reid moved aggressively to respond to the comment he made to the two authors of the book, “Game Change.” In addition to calling Mr. Obama on Saturday, Mr. Reid reached out to several black political leaders as his aides sought to quell the political fallout that other politicians have endured after making impolitic comments about race.
Mr. Reid, who is embroiled in a difficult re-election battle in Nevada and a bruising legislative fight over health care on Capitol Hill, had already been fighting speculation that he might step down. Republicans sharply criticized him for the comments, but there were no indications that his Democratic allies would abandon him.
While Mr. Obama has acknowledged that his race has played a role in his rapid national rise, he has long sought to prevent race from being a distraction to his political campaigns and his agenda. The White House swiftly issued a statement, aides said, in an effort to keep the controversy from interfering with a final push on health care legislation and from setting back one of the party’s leaders in the mid-term elections.
The call from Mr. Reid was the latest in a string of apologies Mr. Obama has accepted over the years, underscoring the sometimes uneasy evolution of race and politics in America. Three years ago, then-Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware told the New York Observer that Mr. Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Mr. Obama accepted Mr. Biden’s apology and more than a year later selected him as the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
The relationship between the president and Mr. Reid has been strong since Mr. Obama arrived in Washington as a senator in 2005. One year later, Mr. Reid encouraged Mr. Obama to think about running for president.
The comments by Mr. Reid were contained in the book written by the political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. He made the remark to the authors in the context of praising Mr. Obama’s political skills. An aide to Mr. Reid said the comments about how he believed the country would accept Mr. Obama, whose father was black and mother was white, were not intended for use in the book.
In Washington and in Nevada, the exchange set off something of a political furor for Mr. Reid. One adviser said that Mr. Reid’s aggressive response was an attempt to avoid the fate of a recent Republican majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who stepped down after making a racially tinged remark in 2002.
In contrast to Mr. Reid’s endorsement of a black candidate, Mr. Lott appeared to endorse the long-past segregationist candidacy of Strom Thurmond. The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Saturday circulated comments that Mr. Reid made during the Lott controversy. Mr. Reid said at the time: “If you tell ethnic jokes in the back room, it’s that much easier to say ethnic things publicly. I’ve always practiced how I play.”
Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, was among the black leaders who received a call from Mr. Reid. Mr. Clyburn said that Mr. Reid should be judged on the merits of his record to respond to diversity and to advance the president’s agenda.
“I am one of those who wish to one day live in a color-blind nation,” Mr. Clyburn said. “But the fact is that none of us do today.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton of New York offered his support for Mr. Reid after receiving a telephone call from him. He said that while Mr. Reid “did not select the best word choice in this instance,” the comments should not distract Congress or the White House.
The remark from Mr. Reid is one of several items in the book that present new assertions from the 2008 presidential campaign.