WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to slam the book shut Monday on a controversy stemming from remarks about President Barack Obama’s race and dialect, and a string of forgiving statements from prominent blacks made clear his leadership post is not in immediate jeopardy.
“I’ve apologized to the president,” he said, and to everyone “within the sound of my voice that I could have used a better choice of words.” He spoke in Apex, Nev., his first public comments since the issue flared over the weekend.
“I’ll continue to do my work for the African-American community…I’m not going to dwell on this any more,” he added.
While nationally prominent Democrats ranging from Obama to the Rev. Al Sharpton have rallied to his side, the impact of the gaffe in Reid’s home state of Nevada is unpredictable. The 70-year-old majority leader is seeking re-election this fall, and recent polls show him trailing potential Republican rivals.
Republicans have called on Reid to step down as majority leader, a move that would undermine his re-election chances in Nevada, where he is running as a powerful senior lawmaker who can deliver for his home state.
As majority leader, Reid has been the point man for the past year in trying to pass Obama’s legislative program through the Senate, and there was no public evidence the controversy has eroded his standing. Any change in leadership would be felt most immediately in the drive to win final passage for health care legislation, an area in which he has committed enormous amounts of time, energy and credibility.
Reid’s remarks in his home state were his first in public since the weekend disclosure that he had described Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign as a light-skinned African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Those reflections appear in a new book, “Game Change,” by Time magazine’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann.
Reid swiftly telephoned his apologies to the president, who accepted them and issued a statement saying, “As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”
Two days later, Reid said he agreed on that last point, and sought to shore up his civil rights credentials. “As a very young man in the state of Nevada I was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in Nevada, and it had a lot of moving to do,” he said.
The latest expression of forgiveness came from Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in an interview with The Associated Press the remark was”unfortunate, but I don’t think that there is a prejudiced bone in his body.” Holder is the first black to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Sharpton also said Reid did not deserve to lose his leadership position as a result of his comments. New York Gov. David Paterson, who is black, said Reid’s remarks were reprehensible and degrading, but he said Reid shouldn’t lose his leadership post as a result.
At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the president “didn’t take offense” at the comment.
Reid has a history of sparking controversy with off-the-cuff remarks, and possibly as a result, he rarely makes appearances on television interview programs. Increasingly, he speaks from a script when he addresses reporters in the Capitol.
In 2004, he called President George W. Bush a liar for actions relating to a proposed nuclear waste dump in Nevada, then said he would not back off.
Several months later, in comments to high school students in Nevada, Reid said the president was a loser, then called the White House swiftly to apologize.
While Democrats quickly coalesced around Reid, Republicans sought political gain in the controversy.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement “voters are reminded” of when then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said in 2002 the country would have been better off if Dixiecrats had won the presidential election in 1948. Lott spoke at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who sought the White House a half-century earlier on a platform of racial segregation.
Michael Steele, who is black and the chairman of the Republican Party, accused Democrats of trying to have it both ways.
“There is this standard where the Democrats feel that they can say these things and they can apologize when it comes from the mouths of their own. But if it comes from anyone else, it’s racism,” Steele said.
Steele did not mention that it was Bush’s White House and fellow Republicans, embarrassed by the comments, who ultimately pushed Lott from his leadership position.