WASHINGTON — With mugs of beer and more-carefully chosen words, President Barack Obama tried to push himself and the nation beyond an uproar over race, chatting in his garden Thursday with the black professor and the white policeman whose dispute had ignited a fierce, consuming debate.
Under the canopy of a magnolia tree in the early evening, Obama joined the other players in a story that had knocked the White House off stride: Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley. Vice President Joe Biden was with them on a Rose Garden patio.
The men were seen chatting with each other, each with a mug of beer. The media were stationed far away, out of earshot, and ushered away quickly.
Although Obama had invited Crowley and 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.
Crowley and Gates, in dark suits for the highly anticipated meeting, seemed more formal than Obama and Biden, who had ditched their coats in the early evening. The president nibbled on snacks and was seen laughing at one point.
The meeting lasted over 40 minutes.
A short time earlier from the Oval Office, Obama had done what his aides had been doing for days: lowering expectations.
“I noticed this has been called the ‘Beer Summit.' It's a clever term, but this is not a summit, guys,” Obama told reporters. “This is three folks having a drink at the end of the day, and hopefully giving people an opportunity to listen to each other. And that's really all it is. This is not a university seminar.”
There's been a political cost for Obama for the episode, stealing attention from his agenda and drawing negative public reviews on how he handled the matter.It began when Crowley investigated a potential burglary at Gates' house and ended up arresting the protesting professor for disorderly conduct. The matter mushroomed into a debate on racial profiling, fueled when Obama said in a prime-time news conference that the police “acted stupidly.” He later expressed regret.
Gates, 58, is black. Crowley, 42, is white. The charge against Gates has been dropped.
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 Obama, Sam Adams Light for Gates, Blue Moon for Crowley, and nonalcoholic Buckler for Biden.
Before the photo-op moment of diplomacy, Obama confessed that 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,” Obama said. “And that's it.”
Crowley told Boston TV station WHDH that he hoped for a meaningful discussion with the president and then a quick return to his job. “Right now I just want to get back to work, get back to doing what it is I do, get back to being a dad to my three children,” he said at an airport in Washington.
It was Obama himself who said last week the episode could be a “teachable moment” on improving relations between police and minority communities.
Yet his agenda became simply to allow for a good, productive conversation. The hope, in turn, is that people in communities across the nation will see the meeting as a model for how to solve differences — more listening, less shooting from the lip.
Yet a parallel goal for Obama is to cap this story and move attention back to his push for a national health care overhaul.
The White House says it is not paying for any transportation or other accommodation costs for Gates or Crowley. Gates and Crowley had family members with them. They got tours and pictures.
“I hope it's more than media hype. I really hope that it's a moment where everyone acknowledges the complexity of race relations in our country,” said Kelly McBride, a specialist in ethics at the Poynter Institute journalism center.