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Harry Reid apologizes for ‘no Negro dialect’ remark about Obama

Updated Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010 | 4:03 p.m.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gestures while speaking on health care reform during a news conference, Monday, Oct. 26, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized Saturday for private remarks quoted in an upcoming book in which he promoted then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s racial appeal as a “light-skinned” African-American.

Reid was convinced Obama’s race would help him in the 2008 campaign for president, believing the country was ready for a black president and noting that Obama speaks "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," according to reports of the book “Game Change,” by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

Excerpts were reported by Marc Ambinder today in The Atlantic, and Reid’s apology was first published by the Sun’s Jon Ralston.

“I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words. I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans for my improper comments,” Reid said in a statement.

“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.

“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 important to African-American community.”

The president accepted Reid's apology "without question," saying he knows Reid and "what's in his heart."

"Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today," Obama said in statement.

"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," Obama said. "As far as I am concerned, the book is closed."

Beyond the impolitic expression, Reid’s comments provide deeper revelations about the extent to which the majority leader backed Obama over the other candidates in the 2008 race -- despite his professed neutrality.

In last year’s epilogue to his own book, “The Good Fight,” Reid disclosed that he called then-Sen. Barack Obama into his office off the Senate floor in early 2007 and encouraged him to run for president.

“If you want to be president, you can be president now,” Reid recalled telling Obama in the book.

Reid’s comments last April were a game changer at the time, revealing a closer relationship between the often-inscrutable majority leader and the popular new president than Washington had realized.

Today’s comments show an even deeper involvement by the majority leader in supporting the candidate who would become president.

The book details a pivotal Reid-Obama meeting in mid-2006 where the majority leader summoned the young senator to his office and surprised Obama by encouraging him to run.

However, the description of that meeting in "Game Change" is similar to the 2007 one Reid described in an interview last year with the Sun upon the release of the epilogue to his book.

In that interview, Reid similarly described Obama as sitting by the fireplace in the majority leader's office, ostensibly summoned on other business, and surprised by Reid's unexpected encouragement.

At the time, Reid could not recall the exact date of their talk.

When asked today if Reid was mistaken in his autobiography, that the meeting actually took place in 2006, Reid's spokesman said it was possible, as the two met often, and Reid could not be sure of the date of the meeting.

Reid’s publicly-stated neutrality throughout the campaign season led to much speculation about his true feelings, especially during the heated early caucus in Nevada in January 2008.

Observers believed if anything, Reid secretly leaned toward Hillary Rodham Clinton because of his long relationship with the Clintons. Reid’s son, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, was co-chairman of Clinton’s Nevada campaign.

But the book reveals Reid's misgivings about Clinton's viability and his belief in Obama.

Obama visited Nevada 20 times, with Reid often appearing alongside him, and went on to win the state by 12 percentage points – the largest Democratic presidential victory since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Ambinder notes that the book is due to be released Tuesday, and the journalists are scheduled to discuss it Sunday night on “60 Minutes.” He said he picked up a copy of the book at a Washington bookstore Friday night.

The book is described as a gossipy chronicle of the 2008 election.

The disclosures on Reid come on a difficult day for the majority leader, who faces an uphill battle for re-election as the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic senator.

Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian, a former UNLV basketball star-turned-businessman, was among the first to go after Reid for the comment, reminding of Reid's recent remarks comparing Republican stonewalling on health care reform to foes of slavery.

“He disgraces himself almost monthly with some disparaging remark about his constituents, political opponents, or now the President,” Tarkanian said.

The Republican senatorial campaign committee invoked a comparison to comments made by former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi.

Lott said in 2002 that the country would have been better off if former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had been elected president in 1948 on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket -- causing the then-Republican senate leader to step down.

But African-American leaders came to Reid's defense.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, president National Action Network, said he spoke with Reid today and "while there is no question that Senator Reid did not select the best word choice in this instance, these comments should not distract America from its continued focus on securing health care or creating jobs for its people.

"Nor should they detract from the unquestionable leadership role Senator Reid has played on these issues or in the area of civil rights," Sharpton said. "Senator Reid's door has always been open on hearing from the civil rights community on these issues and I look forward to continue to work with Senator Reid wherever possible to improve the lives of Americans everywhere."

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Steven Horsford

In Nevada, state Sen. Steven Horsford, the Democratic majority leader of the state Senate, said he was disappointed in Reid's choice of words, but accepts the fellow Nevadan's apology.

Horsford said Reid "has consistently been supportive of advancing the interests of the African-American community as he has for all Nevadans and all Americans.”

"I have known Harry Reid for many years -- he is a good man," Horsford said. "I know Senator Reid's character and I know, now more than ever, why his leadership is needed in Washington."

A new poll out today from the Las Vegas Review-Journal shows Reid’s standing dropped among Nevada voters.

Reid’s approval rating dipped to 33 percent, according to the poll, with 52 percent saying they have an unfavorable view of the senator, a new low.

Reid's campaign has run ads to re-introduce him to Nevada's transient population and highlight his power as majority leader to help the state. The campaign has said internal polling sees the majority leader faring better.

“Nearly a year out from the election, our own internal polling shows Sen. Reid beating all of his potential opponents," said campaign manager Brandon Hall. "These are difficult times for Nevada and as the majority leader of the Senate Sen. Reid has taken action to address those challenges. He knows there is more work to do to turn our state's economy around and create jobs and he is committed to seeing it through."

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