Militant Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy on Friday apologized for his comments published this week on African Americans and slavery but refused to back off from his intended point that the federal government was too powerful, saying that his remarks came "from the heart."
In a daily news conference from his ranch in Bunkerville, north of Las Vegas, the 67-year-old rancher, who is in a prolonged battle with federal officials over grazing rights on public lands in Nevada, said he was not a racist.
"I'm probably one of the most non-racist people in America," he said, standing on the back of a long-haul truck trailer with an American flag in the foreground.
He suggested that his comments were misinterpreted.
"I hope I didn't offend anybody. If I did, I ask for your forgiveness," he said in a news conference streamed on the Internet. "But I meant what I said. It comes form the heart."
In an interview with a New York Times reporter, Bundy talked about social welfare and African Americans and the corrosive effect of government subsidies.
"They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom," Bundy said.
A public firestorm erupted. Some conservative lawmakers who had supported Bundy backed off, denouncing his statements. Harry Reid, Nevada's senior senator and a Bundy critic, called him a "hateful racist."
Earlier Friday, Bundy released a statement reiterating his views that the federal government was heavy-handed against all Americans.
"What I am saying is that all we Americans are trading one form of slavery for another. All of us are in some measure slaves of the federal government," his statement said.
"And the government dole which many people in America are on, and have been for much of their lives, is dehumanizing and degrading. It takes away incentive to work and self-respect. Eventually a person on the dole becomes a ward of the government, because his only source of income is a dole from the government. Once the government has you in that position, you are its slave."
This month, the Bureau of Land Management began to collect hundreds of Bundy's cattle from public lands, only to back down and release the animals after armed Bundy supporters came to his side. Since the standoff with the BLM began, he has gone public every day -- with many of his addresses carried live via the Internet.
He has been joined, at times, by hundreds of so-called citizen soldiers -- many armed with semiautomatic weapons -- who have pledged to protect the rancher from government reprisals. He's been embraced by conservative commentator Sean Hannity and pilloried by comedian Stephen Colbert.
At his news conference Friday, Bundy started his speech with a joke, suggesting that he has recently put his foot in his mouth with comments that have drawn criticism nationwide from some and applause from a few.
"Sometimes I say the right thing and sometimes I say the wrong things, but I'm just happy to be here talking to America," he said. "It's not too often a rancher gets to talk to millions of people."
He said the standoff made him tired, but he was not tired of discussing race.
"The U.S. has an obsession about race. And I'm not tired of talking about it," Bundy said.
He then launched into a rambling diatribe about religion as a woman in fatigue pants took pictures and a man wearing a cowboy hat and gun in his hip holster stood nearby.
Bundy also took a shot at the BLM, saying, "They do not own this land. They are a foreign group here."