Obama's 'beer summit' yields symbolic image, but little else

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 30, 2009 

President Barack Obama, right, meets with Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department, second from right, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., second from left, and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, July 30, 2009. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

OLIVIER DOULIERY / ABACA PRESS / MCT

WASHINGTON — Different suds for different buds?

Each man's beer of choice was respectfully made available in glass mugs for their meeting at a table on the White House South Lawn Thursday evening: Bud Light for President Barack Obama, Sam Adams Light for Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, and Blue Moon for Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley.

Vice President Joe Biden joined the group with a glass of Buckler, a non-alcoholic beer.

As Obama likes to say, they could disagree without being disagreeable.

However, the high-profile happy hour with an elite black professor, a white cop and the nation's biracial president and white vice president won't erase the tensions that led to it. Despite Obama's election, Americans at all levels of society still struggle with racial friction.

Crowley, speaking afterward with reporters at the AFL-CIO nearby, called the meeting "cordial and productive" but said no one offered apologies and that he and Gates "agreed to disagree." He declined to share many details, saying it was "a private discussion."

Crowley said he and Gates are planning their own follow-up meeting, to talk more about their different perspectives and try to make something constructive of the incident.

After their meeting, Obama issued a statement thanking Gates and Crowley for joining him.

"I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart," he said. "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."

Obama's regrets were clear; he knew he screwed up. Initially last week, he said that the police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates for lashing out at them after they showed up to see if he'd broken into what turned out to be his own home. In saying that, the president polarized Americans, enraged police, went off-message on health care and lost standing with the public.

A Pew poll released Thursday found four in five Americans are aware of his remarks 0_ and disapprove of them by 41 to 29 percent. Among whites alone, the split was 2-to-1 against him, and hurt his overall approval rating. Obama's support among whites fell following his comments from 53 to 46 percent in a couple of days.

Last week Obama quickly declared his first reaction unhelpful, professed his appreciation for police and allowed that Gates bore responsibility for escalating things. The president called it a "teachable moment" and set up Thursday's meeting.

Journalists were summoned to take pictures of the staged event, but not to ask questions or listen to the conversation. Gates and Crowley were permitted to come early for the 6 p.m. affair, bring entourages including family members, tour the White House and take official photos. These interactions also weren't public.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the meeting was worthwhile "even if you're not able to hear each and every word of it," and that such a dialogue "is what has to happen at every level of our society."

However, he struggled to explain how ordinary Americans should apply the example of a presidential invitation that neither Gates nor Crowley could reasonably refuse to less mediated instances of racial tension in their own lives.

"I don't think the president has outsized expectations that one cold beer at one table here is going to change massively the course of human history," Gibbs said. However, he said he the images would "provide a far different picture than what we've seen to date of this situation."

Valerie Fairley, 46, a black teacher from Mississippi, who was waiting for a White House tour on Thursday with her family, interpreted the beer meeting as political theater.

"I knew it was going to get to that point," after Obama said the police acted "stupidly," she said. "He was under the gun then."

Fairley first assumed that Gates was a victim of racial profiling, but said the more she learned about the 911 call and Gates' behavior before his arrest, she realized it wasn't that simple.

Fairley supports teaching cultural diversity and having laws to protect minority rights, but cautioned, "You cannot legislate love. You cannot legislate history."

"If we can get over slavery and get an African-American president in the White House," she said, "we can get past this incident, believe you me."

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