President Obama was full of surprises Friday. First, he placed a conciliatory early afternoon phone call to James P. Crowley, the Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant whose intelligence and judgment Obama questioned during a prime-time press conference for arresting a prominent African-American Harvard professor in his own home. Then Obama reacted favorably to the sergeant's suggestion that he and the president have a beer together at the White House – along with the professor, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates. And then, the president strode to the podium in the White House briefing room to tell the press about it at a regularly scheduled briefing usually conducted by press secretary Robert Gibbs.
It was a nice moment. The president seemed to be channeling the words of that well-known Los Angeles philosopher, Rodney King: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"
The latest installment in this serial came about 2:30 p.m. when Obama came into the James Brady briefing room unexpectedly. Most White House reporters present quickly rose to their feet. "It's a cameo appearance," Obama said with a smile. "Sit down."
"You're the new press secretary?" someone quipped.
"If you've got a job to do, do it yourself," Obama quipped back. And so he did. It's not often that sitting presidents express regret or admit error, especially promptly. But this one did.
"I wanted to address you guys directly, because over the last day-and-a half, obviously, there's been all sorts of controversy around the incident that happened in Cambridge with professor Gates and the police department there," Obama began. "I actually just had a conversation with Sgt. Jim Crowley, the officer involved. And I have to tell you that, as I said yesterday, my impression of him was that he was an outstanding police officer and a good man."
"And because this has been ratcheting up, and I obviously helped to contribute to the ratcheting it up, I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically," Obama said. "And I could have calibrated those words differently. And I told this to Sgt. Crowley."
Although millions of Americans think Obama had said exactly the right thing, it was clear that he added heat to the debate instead of shedding light on it. Taking a step back this way was the action of a contrite man. Or, at the least, it was an action of a man who wants to talk about health care, not some goofy arrest that occurred because two alpha males didn't know how to back down.
In case you missed it, this situation was this: On July 16, Cambridge police received a call from a woman reporting what she thought was a daytime burglary, i.e. "two black males with backpacks" trying to force entry of a residential home. The woman did indeed witness such a scene. But one of the men was professor Gates, trying to force his way into his own home after he'd been away awhile. The other man was his driver. Gates was having trouble with the locked front door. Responding to the call, Crowley espied a man he described as "an older black male" standing in the foyer of the home looking at him. He asked the gentleman – it was Gates – if he would step outside, only to be told, "No I will not." Things went downhill from there, the nadir being when Gates called Crowley "a racist cop" and taunted him by yelling, "I'll speak with your mama outside." Suffice it to say that the good professor soon found himself booked downtown, and that cooler heads in the prosecutor's office dropped a disorderly conduct charge – but not before the incident became a cause célèbre among liberals and in the African-American community.
Two schools of thought immediately formed over this minor incident. The first was this: Just as there are certain words a baseball player or manager cannot say to an umpire, there are things you cannot say to a police sergeant without receiving a ride in a squad car. Implying you'll have sex with his mother before complying with a policeman's lawful directive is definitely one of them.
The second school of thought is that African-Americans in this country have earned the right to be skittish about cops entering their homes without warrants when they've done nothing wrong, and that no matter how resentfully Gates acted toward Crowley, there simply was no call to escalate the matter by arresting him. He was in his own house, for goodness' sakes.
At news conference Wednesday night, Politics Daily's own (well, actually we share her with the Chicago Sun-Times) Lynn Sweet asked Obama for his views on the case. The president prefaced his answer by saying that Gates was a friend of his, that he might be biased, and that he didn't know all the facts. But then he went on to indicate that he was with the School of Thought Number Two. The president said that it's "just a fact" that blacks and Latinos are stopped for questioning disproportionately by law enforcement, that anybody would be angry at a police officer coming to their house on a faux report of a burglary, and that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in the their own home."
Friday, Obama was much more circumspect. He said he hoped that the case would become "a teachable moment" used to improve relations between minorities and police officers – a description he might have been applying to himself as well. "I continue to believe, based on what I've heard, that there was an overreaction in pulling professor Gates out of his home to the station," he said. "I also continue to believe, based on what I heard, that professor Gates probably overreacted as well."
"My sense is you've got two good people in a circumstance in which neither of them were able to resolve the incident in the way that it should have been resolved," the president continued. "What I'd like to do then is make sure that everybody steps back for a moment, recognizes that these are two decent people, not extrapolate too much . . ."
Obama said he disagreed with critics who have said he had no business weighing in on a purely local issue. "The fact that this has become such a big issue, I think, is indicative of the fact that, you know, race is still a troubling aspect of our society. Whether I were black or white, I think that me commenting on this, and hopefully contributing to constructive, as opposed to negative, understandings about this issue is part of my portfolio."
Near the end of the call, Crowley raised the scenario of Gates and the president sharing a beer at the White House. Obama seemed to rather like the idea, and hinted that it would be scheduled soon. The president didn't repeat the words of that well-known Los Angeles philosopher Rodney King, but he might as well have: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we call get along?"