It is now a little over twenty-four hours since the eminent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge (Mass.) Police Department sat down at a white lawn table on the South Lawn of the White House, joined by President Obama (with Vice President Biden acting as wingman, to broadly use a term of military and slacker lingo), in an effort to settle the differences that arose two weeks ago.
As most of the world knows – or at least that part of the world with access to cable and satellite TV – the incident that brought this meeting about occured on July 16 when Sgt. Crowley, answering a 911 report of a possible burglary, went to a house in Cambridge and found Prof. Gates in its foyer – quite naturally, since it was his own house. Gates, who had just struggled with a jammed front door (which was misinterpreted by a passerby who was the one who phoned 911), was in an irritated mood, and his conversation with the officer, when the latter asked for his identification, escalated to his arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct.
At first the incident was one for the inside pages of newspapers around the country and it took two days for all three network evening newscasts to run stories on it. But after extensive blogging and Twittering raised Prof. Gates’s arrest to the level of a national controversy, a reporter asked the President about it last week, at the very end of a press conference intended to focus exclusively on the health-care initiatives now in Congress. Since Obama is a onetime president of the Harvard Law Review who later taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for an even dozen years, it would have seemed logical for him to reply that, given his friendship with Gates (and his even closer friendship with Gates’s legal advisor Charles Ogletree, his onetime professor at Harvard Law), it would be inappropriate for him to comment for the moment. Instead, he offered the opinion that "the Cambridge police" (ie, Sgt Crowley) had acted "stupidly" in bringing Gates downtown.
This provoked a firestorm of criticism from law-enforcement professionals around the country, not to mention regular citizens. Starting on July 23, when Obama made his remarks, the Pew Research Center began conducting a poll to determine the president’s current levels of popularity and support. It found that the whites polled, especially those from a blue-collar background, strongly disapproved of Obama’s statement on the Gates case, by a two-to-one margin. Indeed, the overall percent of those polled who approved of Obama’s performance dropped from 53 percent among those polled on July 23 and 24 to 46 percent on July 25, the day that Obama walked into White House Press Secretary Robert Gates’s briefing to say that his words could have been better "calibrated."
Shortly after Obama’s effort to clarify his remarks, the White House announced that he had invited Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley to come down to the White House and have a friendly beer – the post-Y2K version of smoking the peace pipe, presumably. Reporters clamored to know just what potent potables, as Alex Trebek would put it, were going to be on tap. At first the White House announced that Obama would have a Budweiser, then changed that to a Bud Light – a Chief Executive has to beware of those extra calories, y’know. It was also reported that Sgt. Crowley would order a Blue Moon.
As for Prof. Gates, at first it was suggested that he might have a beverage other than beer – after all, these tweedy academic types are hard to tear away from their sherry and white wine. But then it was learned that he, too, would order a beer – a Red Stripe.
These choices provoked a new controversy. Budweiser is now owned by the Belgian conglomerate that brews Stella Artois. Blue Moon is a Belgian-style beer made in Colorado by the Coors company, nowadays owned by the Canadian firm Molson. And Red Stripe, the quintessential Jamaican beer, is now the property of a British company. Not an American owned-and-operated brew in the bunch. So, at the last minute, Prof. Gates one-upped his companions by ordering Sam Adams instead – a rather fitting choice, since that beverage is named for the "firebrand of the Revolution" who was also a Boston native.(Vice President Biden, perhaps rather prudently, requested a non-alcoholic brew.)
After the beers were duly sipped, Sgt. Crowley informed the reporters that he and Gates had "agreed to disagree" (or, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank put it, were no longer "at lagerheads") and the situation seemed to have settled down, as the media moved on to the latest phenomenon of the Obama era, the "cash for clunkers" program.
But it’s hard not to look at that longshot of professor, policeman, President, and Veep sitting at that little white table and think that the Republic has come a long way from Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer meeting JFK and LBJ at the White House. In those days the issue of race in America was as serious as it still is now, but nobody cared much about what was in the glasses of those men (and one woman, Dr. Dorothy Height, the only one still with us) when they met.
But this time, the President’s attempt to "cool down" a situation that was a hot one, to the degree it was hot, mainly because of Gates’s response to a policeman’s polite questioning, was slightly ham-handed from start to finish. Many columnists with a conservative reputation have weighed in, but it’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Frank, as liberal a punditas there is in the Fourth Estate, hit the nail on the head:
Conservatives won this round in the culture wars, not merely because most of the facts broke their way, but because their grievance is one that a certain species of liberal never seems to grasp. Whether the issue is abortion, evolution or recycling, these liberal patricians are forever astonished to discover that the professions and institutions and attitudes that they revere are seen by others as arrogance and affectation.
The “elitism” narrative routinely blind-sides them, takes them by surprise again and again. There they are, feeling good about their solidarity with the coffee-growers of Guatemala, and then they find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from, say, the plumbers of Ohio.
The Gates incident was a trap that could not have been better crafted to ensnare President Barack Obama, who is himself a loyal son of academia’s most prestigious reaches, and to whom it was immediately obvious, even without benefit of the facts, that the Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in the situation.
Mr. Obama’s way of backing out of his gaffe was just as telling: He invited Mr. Gates and the policeman who arrested him to the White House for a beer, the beverage so often a gauge of a politician’s blue-collar bona fides. One symbolic gesture, hopefully, can exorcise another.
But one has to wonder if it’s as simple as that. As NewsMax.com noted this week, the Pew poll showed Obama with a lower approval number than Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon or George W. Bush had at this point in their presidencies – and Nixon was presiding over a country deeply divided and polarized, while Bush was a half-year past a bitterly disputed election. None of these three rode into office on the wave of adultation that Obama enjoyed. He’ll have to move rather more carefully, and choose his words with greater forethought, if he wants to avoid getting mired in more controversies like the Gates one.