Image: Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP file
Calling the Senate's majority leader "a good man," President Barack Obama said he accepted Sen. Harry Reid's apology for comments he made about race during the 2008 campaign.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/12/2010 8:07:18 AM ET 2010-01-12T13:07:18

Calling the Senate's top Democrat "a good man," President Barack Obama defended Sen. Harry Reid Monday after a new book revealed racial remarks he made about Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

In a private conversation reported in the book, Reid described Obama as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

"This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history," Obama said in a television interview Monday.

Obama, who issued a statement on Saturday accepting Reid's apology, called the Nevada lawmaker "a stalwart champion of voting rights."

Speaking to reporters in Nevada, Reid acknowledged that he "could have used a better choice of words," noting that he has received phone calls of support from black lawmakers since the comment was publicized over the weekend.

Reid, who said that he is "very proud" that he was among the first Democrats to encourage Obama to run for president, added that he is "not going to dwell on this anymore."

Earlier on Monday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told MSNBC's 'The Daily Rundown' that Obama has "absolute confidence" in the Nevada Democrat.

"He knows Harry Reid, he trusts Harry Reid," Emanuel said. "Harry Reid has — absolutely — the confidence of the president and the rest of the Democratic caucus to do the job that he needs to do as Senate majority leader and as senator of Nevada."

The nation's first black attorney general also defended Reid. "I don't think that there is a prejudiced bone in his body," Attorney General Eric Holder told The Associated Press.

Republicans decry 'double standard'
But Republicans are accusing Democrats of applying a double standard by accepting Reid's apology for the racial remarks instead of demanding Reid's ouster as majority leader.

However, Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele, in appearances on two Sunday television news programs, compared Reid's predicament with the circumstances that led Senate Republican leader Trent Lott to step down from that post in 2002. Lott had spoken favorably of the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, and in spite of apologies for those remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday, Lott was forced out as leader.

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"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," said Steele, who is black. "It's either racist or it's not. And it's inappropriate, absolutely." Video: Reid: 'Not going to dwell on this anymore'

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jack Reed of Rhode Island joined other Democrats in saying Reid's apology and Obama's statement were enough. They also rejected comparisons to the Lott episode.

"I think that's a totally different context. Harry Reid made a misstatement," Reed said. "He owned up to it. He apologized. I think he is mortified by the statement he's made. And I don't think he should step down."

Steele: Reid 'out of touch' with blacks
Steele said Reid's remarks reflect an "attitude" by the Nevada senator, and Steele cited the lawmaker's comment last month about those who would want to go more slowly on overhauling health care: "You think you've heard these same excuses before? You're right. In this country there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early. Let's wait. Things aren't bad enough.' — about slavery."

To Steele, "Clearly, he is out of touch not only with where America and his district are but where — how African Americans generally feel about these issues."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also said in a statement that Reid should step down, calling his comments "embarrassing and racially insensitive."

"It's difficult to see this situation as anything other than a clear double standard on the part of Senate Democrats and others," Cornyn said.

Former Rep. Harold Ford, an African-American who is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, called Reid's remarks "an unusual set of words."

But in an interview Monday on NBC's TODAY show, Ford said, "I don't believe in any way Harry Reid had any racial animus. I think there's an important distinction between he and Trent Lott."

Ford, who is considering challenging Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in his party's primary this year, also said he thinks no Democrats have called for Reid's ouster because "I think he has a (civil rights) record you can point to."

Tough re-election bid
For his part, Reid has no intention of stepping down as majority leader and is "absolutely running for reelection," his spokesman, Jim Manley, said.

"The Republicans are saying this because they know they can't beat Harry Reid," Manley said in an e-mail. "The only way to get him is to try to push him out. Sen. Reid stands by the president and will continue his life's work to improve people's lives."

Reid, whose tenure as majority leader has drawn criticism from liberals and conservatives, faces a difficult reelection bid this fall in Nevada, a state hard hit by the recession with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

In their book "Game Change," Time Magazine's Mark Halperin and New York magazine's John Heilemann report that Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he later put it privately."

The behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 campaign that elevated Obama to the White House is based on the writers' interviews with more than 200 sources. Most of them were granted anonymity and thus much of the material could not be immediately corroborated.

Reid's apology
On Saturday, after his remarks appeared on the Web site of The Atlantic, Reid issued a statement apologizing for "using such a poor choice of words." He added, "I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments."

Video: Old wounds

Obama quickly followed with a statement calling the remarks "unfortunate" and accepting the apology. "As far as I am concerned," the president said, "the book is closed."

Lott apologized for "a poor choice of words" four days after speaking at a birthday celebration for then-Republican Sen. Thurmond of South Carolina. The Mississippi Republican had said the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948. Thurmond was an ardent segregationist and the Democratic governor of South Carolina when he mounted his third-party campaign.

Calls for Lott to step down as Republican leader intensified, and he resigned as Senate leader about a week later. Lott resigned from the Senate in 2007.

Steele and Kaine spoke on "Fox News Sunday" and NBC's "Meet the Press." Reed spoke on the Fox program, and Feinstein appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Video: Should Reid resign? 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: White House rallies behind Sen. Reid

  1. Closed captioning of: White House rallies behind Sen. Reid

    >> stephanie, thank you.

    >>> senate majority leader harry reid said on monday that he is not going to dwell on controversial remarks he made about president obama 's race and dialect, but will that close the door on the controversy? we're going to get republican senator john mccain 's thoughts in just a moment. but first, nbc's andrea mitchell has the latest. andrea, good morning.

    >> good morning, meredith. the white house is now rallying behind senate majority leader harry reid , rejecting republican calls that reid step down as majority leader. the issue -- racial comments that reid , an early obama supporter, made about barack obama during the campaign. harry reid 's leading supporter, the president. barack obama tried to brush off reid 's critics during an interview with roland martin on tv one for a prime time special to air on martin luther king day.

    >> this is a good man who has always been on the right side of history. for him to have used some inartful language in trying to praise me and for people to try to make hay out of that makes absolutely no sense.

    >> reporter: reid , critical to passage of the president's health reform , also spoke for the first time. in nevada, where he faced an uphill re- election campaign even before this controversy.

    >> i apologized to the president. i apologized to everyone that i could have used a different choice of words.

    >> reporter: his choice of words, in "game change oith, the authors write that reid praised obama 's chances, saying he is "light-skinned" "with no negro dialect unless he wanted to have one out." certainly politically incorrect and historically outdated, but experts say accurate.

    >> was it politic or politically correct for the senate majority leader to say that? no. but the fact is that he was on to something about obama 's crossover appeal.

    >> reporter: "game change" also offers a new portrayal of john and elizabeth edwards . campaign aides told the authors they suspected he was having an affair before he declared for the presidency. even more devastating, the unflattering portrait of elizabeth edwards . until now, a sympathetic figure struggling with breast cancer and a philandering husband, but described in the book as "an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazy woman ."

    >> she was quite a different figure behind the scenes , someone that was intimidating and demanding and often abusive not just to the staff, but to her husband.

    >> thank you so much!

    >> reporter: sarah palin is described as a last-minute, high-risk, high-reward choice for john mccain , who told mccain aids that her selection was "god's plan." they say mccain initially wanted joe lieberman . pal palin's spokeswoman rejected criticisms of her performance during the campaign. in any case, palin has a new position, as a regular political commentator on fox news. matt?

    >> andrea, thank you very much. andrea mitchell in washington. the man who picked sarah palin

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