Reid to Obama: Sorry for 'no Negro dialect' remark

By Philip Elliott
Published January 9, 2010 10:21PM (EST)

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid apologized on Saturday for saying Barack Obama should seek -- and could win -- the White House because Obama was a "light skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Obama quickly accepted, saying "As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."

Reid made the comments in private during the long 2008 campaign, according to a new book about that election, which elevated Obama from first-term Illinois senator to the first black president.

After excerpts from the book appeared on the Web site of The Atlantic, Reid released a statement expressing regret for "using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments."

Obama issued a statement saying he had spoken with Reid, who faces a difficult re-election amid frustration from both liberals and conservatives with his leadership in the Senate and his agenda. For Reid, trailing in polls, the comments can't help, even as Obama relies heavily on him to try to pass a health care overhaul.

The revelations -- included in the book "Game Change" by Time Magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann -- are based on interviews with more than 200 people involved in the campaign, including Obama. The writers' sources were granted anonymity and the writers offer no documentation for their accounts. The book is to be released on Monday and was obtained by The Associated Press on Saturday.

"I was a proud and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama during the campaign and have worked as hard as I can to advance President Obama's legislative agenda," Reid said in his apology.

Reid was neutral during the bitter Democratic primary that became a marathon contest between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama picked her as his secretary of state after the election.

The book also says Reid urged Obama to run for president, perceiving the freshman senator's impatience in Congress.

"You're not going to go any place here," Reid told Obama of the Senate. "I know that you don't like it, doing what you're doing."

The book also dealt with the GOP campaign.

According to the book, aides to Republican nominee John McCain described the difficulties they faced with their vice presidential pick, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain, is quoted telling Palin's foreign policy tutors: "You guys have a lot of work to do. She doesn't know anything."

While flying home to Alaska to see her son off to war, she told her team: "I wish I'd paid more attention to this stuff."

At another point, she is quoted as saying she would not have accepted the vice presidential nomination if she had understood the burden.

The former governor's spokeswoman, Meg Stapleton, disputed the version presented in the reporters' book.

"The governor's descriptions of these events are found in her book, 'Going Rogue.' Her descriptions are accurate," Stapleton said in a statement to "60 Minutes," which is featuring the book in a Sunday broadcast.

"She was there. These reporters were not."

The authors also quote Obama's initial reaction to McCain's selection of a little-known governor: "Wow. Well, I guess she's change."

Vice presidential nominee Joe Biden was direct. "Who's Sarah Palin?" the book quotes the then-senator as asking as they left the nominating convention in Denver.

The Reid comments about Obama come at a time that Reid needs the White House's help if he wants to keep his seat. The Obama administration has dispatched officials on dozens of trips to buoy his bid and Obama has raised money for his campaign.

Recognizing the threat, Reid's apologies also played to his home state: "Moreover, throughout my career, from efforts to integrate the Las Vegas strip and the gaming industry to opposing radical judges and promoting diversity in the Senate, I have worked hard to advance issues."

Even before his remarks in the book were reported, a new survey released Saturday by the Las Vegas Review Journal showed him continuing to earn poor polling numbers. In the poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, Reid trailed former state Republican party chairwoman Sue Lowden by a 10 percentage points, 50 percent to 40 percent, and lagging behind two other opponents.

More than half of Nevadans had an unfavorable opinion of Reid. Just 33 percent of respondents held a favorable opinion.

Philip Elliott

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Barack Obama Harry Reid