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Obama talks with USDA employee forced out of her job

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Shirley Sherrod talks with Obama
  • NEW: Obama says Vilsack acted too quickly in forcing out Sherrod
  • Sherrod calls her conversation with President Obama "very, very good"
  • Spokesman says Obama personally apologized to Sherrod
  • Sherrod was forced out of her Agriculture Department job over a misleading blog post about her

(CNN) -- Shirley Sherrod got her wish Thursday: a conversation with President Barack Obama about her forced resignation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The president and Sherrod spoke by telephone after Obama apparently had some trouble getting through to her. Afterward, Sherrod told CNN that the call was "very, very good."

Obama offered his support and said the two had faced similar issues in their pasts, Sherrod said.

However, she said they didn't discuss whether the White House had a role in her ouster by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, which came after misleading and incomplete video footage of a speech she gave was posted on the internet and picked up in media reports.

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"He didn't go into that," Sherrod said. "He wanted to reassure me that Secretary Vilsack was truly sincere ... with his efforts to rid the agency of discrimination."

In an interview with ABC, Obama said Vilsack acted too quickly in forcing Sherrod's ouster without having all the facts.

"He jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles," Obama said, according to the ABC News website. "I've told my team and I told my agencies that we have to make sure that we're focusing on doing the right thing instead of what looks to be politically necessary at that very moment. We have to take our time and, and think these issues through."

Obama said the lesson to be learned is "rather than us jumping to conclusions and pointing fingers at each other, we should all look inward and try to examine what's in our own hearts and, as a consequence, I think we will continue to make progress."

Sherrod said talking to the president was "great."

"He's the president of the United States of America. I respect him as that. I appreciate him as that," Sherrod said. "And it felt like talking to someone else just sitting in the front of the car here."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama personally apologized to Sherrod in the phone call but did not lobby for her to take another job at the Department of Agriculture, as offered by Vilsack.

"This was not, 'Hey, Shirley, take this job,' " Gibbs said at the White House. "That was not the specific purpose of the call."

The president's office sent Sherrod a text message indicating that Obama had been trying to get in touch with her, Sherrod told CNN producer Julie O'Neill.

Sherrod said she called the White House and was given another number to call. She dialed that number a few minutes later and spoke with the president.

According to O'Neill, Sherrod declined to have the phone call videotaped by CNN.

A White House statement said the two spoke for seven minutes.

"The president expressed to Ms. Sherrod his regret about the events of the last several days," the statement said. "He emphasized that Secretary Vilsack was sincere in his apology yesterday, and in his work to rid USDA of discrimination."

According to the statement, Obama also told Sherrod "that this misfortune can present an opportunity for her to continue her hard work on behalf of those in need, and he hopes that she will do so."

The flap began after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart last week posted a portion of a speech Sherrod gave in which she spoke of not offering her full help to a white farmer. The original post by Breitbart indicated that the incident Sherrod mentioned occurred when she worked for the Agriculture Department, and news outlets quickly picked up on the story.

However, the incident took place decades before she joined the department, and her speech in its unedited form made the point that people should move beyond race. In addition, the white farmer who Sherrod mentioned has told reporters that she helped him save his farm.

Sherrod was forced to resign Monday, but when the full story came out Tuesday, the White House pressured Vilsack to reconsider. Both Vilsack and Gibbs issued apologies to Sherrod on Wednesday, and Vilsack said he offered her another job in the Agriculture Department.

At the same time, White House aides said Wednesday on condition of not being identified by name that Obama was unlikely to call Sherrod or personally interject himself in the race-tinged controversy.

One aide said there wouldn't be any more "beer summits," a reference to the White House meeting Obama held last year amid the controversy over the arrest of Harvard law professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates, who is African-American, was arrested at his home by police Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, in what amounted to a misunderstanding. After Obama criticized the arrest, an ensuing uproar led to the White House discussion over beer involving Obama, Gates, Crowley and Vice President Joe Biden.

Until Thursday's phone discussion between Sherrod and Obama, the White House had tried to separate the president from the issue by emphasizing that Obama played no role in the decision to force Sherrod to resign.

None of that mattered to Sherrod on Thursday. She said Obama was so easy to talk to that she invited him to visit south Georgia, where she is from. There was no word on whether the president would accept her invitation.