Obama hosts Rose Garden beer chat

From the Globe and Mail

Ben Feller

Washington — The Associated Press
Last updated on Friday, Jul. 31, 2009 05:56AM EDT

With mugs of beer and calming words, President Barack Obama and the professor and policeman engulfed in a national uproar over race pledged Thursday to move on and try to pull America with them.

There was no acrimony — nor apology — from any of the three: black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., white Cambridge, Mass., police Sergeant James Crowley, who had arrested him for disorderly conduct, and Mr. Obama, who declared on national TV that the police had “acted stupidly.” But neither Mr. Gates nor Sgt. Crowley backtracked either, agreeing they still had differences.

Said Mr. Obama after the highly anticipated, 40-minute chat on the Rose Garden patio: “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart.”

“I am confident that has happened here tonight, and I am hopeful that all of us are able to draw this positive lesson from this episode,” said America’s first black president.

Under the canopy of a magnolia tree in the early evening, Mr. Obama joined the other players in a story that had knocked the White House off stride. Vice-President Joe Biden joined them for drinks and snacks.

The policeman and the professor both expressed respect for each other after their dispute that unleashed a furor over racial profiling in America.

It all began two weeks ago when Sgt. Crowley was called to investigate a potential burglary at Mr. Gates’ house and ended up arresting the protesting professor for disorderly conduct. The matter mushroomed when Mr. Obama made his comment in a prime-time news conference. The president later expressed regret. In Cambridge, the charge was dropped.

“We agreed to move forward,” Sgt. Crowley said Thursday night when asked if anything was solved in the meeting. “I think what you had today was two gentlemen agreeing to disagree on a particular issue. I don’t think that we spent too much time dwelling on the past. We spent a lot of time discussing the future.”

For his part, Mr. Gates said he and Sgt. Crowley had been caught up as characters in a larger narrative about race over which they had no control.

“It is incumbent upon Sgt. Crowley and me to utilize the great opportunity that fate has given us,” Mr. Gates said in a statement. He said their task must be to foster sympathy among Americans about “the daily perils of policing on the one hand, and for the genuine fears of racial profiling on the other hand.”

Although Mr. Obama had invited Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates as part of what he called a “teachable moment,” it wasn’t quite reachable for the masses. The coverage allowed the public to get the we’ve-come-together photos and video footage that the White House wanted, while keeping the discussion private among the men.

They were seen chatting with each other, each with a mug of beer — Mr. Biden’s was nonalcoholic.

The media were stationed far away, out of earshot, and ushered away quickly.

Sgt. Crowley, 42, and Mr. Gates, 58, said they were planning to meet again, and Mr. Obama hopes he can now pivot back to health care and other issues with this distracting story behind him.

There’s been a political cost for Mr. Obama. The two-week episode has stolen attention from his agenda and has drawn negative public reviews on how he handled the matter.

At the White House, Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates wore dark suits, more formal than Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, who had ditched their coats in the early evening. The President nibbled on snacks and was seen laughing at one point.

Mr. Obama called it a “friendly, thoughtful conversation.” He praised Sgt. Crowley and Mr. Gates for having already spent a little time listening to each other.

That had happened, Sgt. Crowley explained later, when he and Mr. Gates crossed paths as they toured the White House separately with relatives who accompanied them. They continued their tour as one large group.

The White House meeting drew such media interest that press secretary Robert Gibbs said he looked forward to facing no more questions about what beers each man would drink. For the record, it was Bud Light for Mr. Obama, Sam Adams Light for Mr. Gates, Blue Moon for Sgt. Crowley and nonalcoholic Buckler for Mr. Biden.

Before the photo-op moment of diplomacy, Mr. Obama said he was “fascinated by the fascination about this evening.”

“Hopefully, instead of ginning up anger and hyperbole everybody can just spend a little bit of time with some self-reflection and recognizing that other people have different points of view.”

Mr. Obama said last week the episode could be a “teachable moment” on improving relations between police and minority communities.

In practice, that boiled down to a good, productive conversation. The hope, in turn, was that people in communities across the nation would see the meeting as a model for how to solve differences — more listening, less shooting from the lip.

The White House said it did not pay for any transportation or other accommodation costs for Mr. Gates or Sgt. Crowley.

At the time of the incident, Mr. Gates had demanded an apology from Sgt. Crowley and called him a “rogue policeman.” After Mr. Obama’s “acted stupidly” comment, Sgt. Crowley said that, while he supported the president, Mr. Obama was “way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts.”


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