COLUMBIA — Five days after a 390-pound gorilla escaped its zoo enclosure, Rusty DePass found himself standing before a room full of TV cameras with a sealed envelope for first lady Michelle Obama and a one-page apology.
"My comment was offensive and a flippant remark made without thinking," DePass said Wednesday. "It was wrong and foolish, and I deeply regret it and any pain it has produced."
Since last week, 10 words DePass wrote on Facebook that called the gorilla one of Mrs. Obama's ancestors has cost him his job as a commercial real estate agent, his reputation in politics and heaps of embarrassment for his family, friends and associates.
After the comment made rounds in the blogosphere, local newspapers and TV news broadcasts, the South
Carolina State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a news conference to condemn DePass and what he originally called an attempt at a joke.
Lonnie Randolph, president of the state's NAACP, said he wanted to publicly denounce the comment. Maybe then, he said, people, especially those in South Carolina with its history of racism and oppression, would embrace a simple notion his organization has advanced for 100 years: Treat people with decency and respect.
Tuesday night, after the press conference was announced, Randolph said he had a message on his machine from DePass. Could he come to the press conference and apologize?
"Rarely when we say or do something wrong, do we not know we are wrong," Randolph said. "We also know how to fix it."
Randolph called DePass to the front of the NAACP conference room Wednesday. The men shook hands and DePass read the apology he typed up.
"All I can do is ask you to forgive me," he said.
DePass, 61, served as former chairman of the South Carolina Election Commission and is a past chairman of the Richland County Republican Party.
On Friday, after the gorilla briefly escaped his pen at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, one of DePass' friends on Facebook posted an update about it. DePass commented, "I'm sure it's just one of Michelle's ancestors — probably harmless."
FITSNews, a blog run by political consultant Will Folks, reported the story before it was picked up by mainstream media. In an interview last week with Columbia's WIS-TV, Depass apologized and said the comment was a joke about statements Mrs. Obama made about evolution. It's unclear what remarks he was referring to.
Brian McGee, associate professor and chairman of the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston, said DePass' comment goes well beyond bad taste to "shameful racism," which is especially hurtful in the South, where Jim Crow laws exacerbated the struggles leading up to the Civil Rights movement.
But there is a lesson in it. McGee said people must remember to be cautious with social networking sites that blur the line between what is public and what is private.
"That material is there for the world to see," he said.
DePass has since deleted his Facebook page. He said Wednesday that he did not want to compound his "indefensible words" other than to offer his apology.
He wrote a letter to Mrs. Obama to tell her that he is sorry.