WASHINGTON (CNN) - Vice President Dick Cheney apologized Monday for what his spokeswoman called "an inappropriate attempt at humor" that implied that inbreeding is common among West Virginians, a remark that elicited outrage from the state's senior senator.
Asked during a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club about the fact that a search of his family tree found he is a distant relative of Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential front-runner, Cheney said the two politicians were unlikely to hold a family reunion.
He said that the Cheney line on his father's side of the family dates to 1630's, and a Cheney family line on his mother's side dates to the 1650's.
"So, I had Cheneys on both sides of the family - and we don't even live in West Virginia," Cheney cracked. After pausing for laughter from the crowd, Cheney added, "You can say those things when you're not running for re-election."
Afterward, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd lashed out at Cheney for the "insult to all Americans." In a written statement, Byrd declared that Cheney showed "contempt and astounding ignorance toward his own countrymen" with the comments.
"Now that he or the administration he represents no longer needs their vote, Mr. Cheney apparently feels that he is now free to mock and belittle the people of West Virginia," said Byrd, a Democrat. "With his trademark arrogance, the vice president even added, 'You can say those things when you're not running for re-election.' "
He added, "This pitiful comment is not entirely surprising when you consider the source. Vice President Cheney's words reflect the attitude of an administration and a party that says what they must to get elected and then turns their backs on those they promised to represent."
Shortly thereafter, Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said Cheney's "offhand comment was not meant to hurt anyone.
"On reflection, he concluded that it was an inappropriate attempt at humor that he should not have made. The vice president apologizes to the people of West Virginia for the inappropriate remark," McBride said.