REID SCRAMBLES AFTER ‘NEGRO’ COMMENTS…. The irony is, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was trying to demonstrate support.

While officially neutral in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Reid was actively involved in encouraging Barack Obama to run and arguing that Americans would be willing to support an African-American candidate. In their new book, “Game Change,” Time’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann report that Reid was “wowed” by Obama’s skills 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 said privately.”

Yesterday, the soon-to-be-published remarks sent the Majority Leader scrambling.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) apologized Saturday for referring to President Obama in private conversations during the 2008 presidential campaign as “light-skinned” and as having “no Negro dialect.”

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

Obama said in a statement that Reid called him about the matter on Saturday afternoon. “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.”

Reid also reached out directly to a variety of leaders from the African-American community, and the initial reports suggest the senator’s apologies were well received. Al Sharpton, for example, called the comments “unfortunate,” but emphasized the “unquestionable leadership role” Reid has played on a variety of issues, including civil rights. Sharpton added, “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.”

And it’s that context that keeps me from pouncing. Reid’s comments clearly warranted an apology, but his record and credibility on racial issues helps mitigate his genuinely dumb choice of words. I don’t think Reid is a racist — if anything, his comments seem to be an assessment of white people and their voting attitudes, not black people — but the fact that his race-related rhetoric is decades out of date is discouraging, to put it mildly.

I noticed, meanwhile, that both the Washington Post report and the New York Times‘s piece referenced Trent Lott’s infamous 2002 remarks as a point of reference. I found Reid’s comments disappointing, but there’s really no comparison here. Not only is there the larger context to consider — Lott had a history of disturbing racial issues — but Lott specifically said the U.S. would not have had “all the problems” if it had elected a segregationist president in 1948.

The two simply aren’t comparable.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.